REVIEW: Crippled Billy has a leg up on others in UE Theatre production

EVANSVILLE - Nearly nothing is as it at first appears in Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan."

The title character has more trouble walking than anyone else on his tiny Irish island, but Crippled Billy has a leg up on most of the characters in the University of Evansville Theatre's latest production.

Billy is a Shakespearean fool who limps, nods and grins through the teasing, the goading and the verbal and sometimes physical abuse doled out routinely by the other denizens of his remote community in 1934.

The orphaned cripple is more savvy and self-aware than he lets on to any of the addled and eccentric characters who constitute his extended, adopted family, however.

And beneath their own callous cruelty and their bizarre peculiarities, which include intimate conversations with rocks and physical assaults with stones, bricks and fresh eggs, Billy's teasers and tormentors feel much more than most of them realize.

Revelation comes with the arrival of the Hollywood film crew for Robert Flaherty's "Man of Aran," a fictional documentary actually shot on the Irish coast that year.

Repressed dreams, hopes and yearnings unreel with the departure of a group of islanders who set out to land roles in the movie and tickets to a new life.

Director R. Scott Lank's actors, designers and technicians have tied those elements together into a weirdly touching, belligerently bittersweet comedy.

It all revolves around Lockne O'Brien's irrestistable portrayal of Billy, whose intelligence, frustration and longing shine through his simple, accepting facade.

Julia Strange seduces, repels and confounds as Helen, a saucy, capricious hellion whose spirit and affection spark even through taunts and attacks.

Aaron Johnson is a twisted delight as Johnnypateenmike, the breathlessly pandering island "news man." He hides is own humanity behind a gleeful caricature of unconcern, peddling items of marginal interest and questionable fact, always hoping for a good feud, fight or even the death of his own mother.

And Anne Joy and Jennifer Finch offer a comically heartwarming picture of self-contradiction and clucking concern as Billy's adopted aunts, Kate and Eileen.

The rest of the nine-member cast comes through with engagingly idiosyncratic portrayals of Inishmaan's other inhabitants. Their arcanely articulated accents may be difficult to decipher, initially, but, like the play, they soon reveal themselves with the listening.

Student designer Chelsea Allen's costumes effectively reflect the tone and texture of the characters and their community.

The play's remote, coastal Irish atmosphere hangs in the fog of Stephen Boumetis' lighting design and washes through guest artist Kristin Ellert's barren, sweeping scenic design.

Friday's opening performance wove all those elements together into a quirky, Celtic love knot that came together over 2-1/2 hours with one intermission, playing to an audience of 370 in Shanklin Theatre.

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