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Under the cold fluorescent lights: (l-r) Burke, Ingram and Crane in Rat in the Skull.

A Brutal View
By Ralph Hammann

Rat in the Skull

By Ron Hutchinson, directed by Dennis Garnhum

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 8

The interrogation scene, with its intense relationship between accused and interrogator, has always furnished diversely compelling possibilities. From trials to police procedurals to the arcane inquisitors of Beckett and Pinter, the situation is inherently dramatic. Highly memorable is Orwell’s much-adapted 1984, with its electrifying scene in which protagonist Winston Smith (most memorably played by Peter Cushing in a BBC version) was subjected to the threat of a rat eating its way into his skull.

Ron Hutchinson has written a riveting drama that reaches that intensity without ever becoming blatantly graphic. It is the power of words that Hutchinson wields with such acerbic dexterity in this complexly drawn drama told, nearly Rashomon style, by the play’s four protagonists. While set in the real (as opposed to Orwellian) 1984, it speaks with topical urgency. And although set in the interview cell of a London police station, most of the words carry an Irish accent.

Thickest (and sometimes too thick in actor Phil Burke’s throat) is that of Roche, a handsome young IRA terrorist who is the victim of abuse allegedly inflicted by his brutish-looking interviewer, Detective Inspector Nelson (Jonathan Epstein), a fellow countryman of Roche’s, but one working for the English opposition in Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary. Both men are equally passionate about their work, and both succeed in sympathetically getting under one’s skin. Also on hand is Constable Naylor (nicely played by Michael Crane), a junior member of the London Metropolitan Police, who might have witnessed the brutality but who remains elusive and noncommittal. Finally, there is Detective Superintendent Harris (Malcolm Ingram), a tired yet decent senior officer whose unpleasant task is to find out what happened. At various points all four men speak directly to the audience in attempts to make us see, if not identify with, their points of view.

Northern Irish-born Hutchinson is vigorously true to his stated intention: to argue with himself and square his particular Protestant heritage “with a deeper sense of all-Irishness, settling his head against his heart, trying to find a position.” The way to the end involves some of the season’s most propulsive dialogue in scenes that grab one by the throat with bare-knuckled intensity just after patting the shoulder with kid gloves.

Director Dennis Garnhum beautifully stages the interrogations in the appropriately tight confines of Alexander Dodge’s admirably brutalized setting of a metal platform surrounded by the detritus of urban bombings. Matthew E. Adelson’s cold lighting impressively couples with the set, with the best touch being two arrangements of four fluorescent tubes shining from beneath the grillwork of the platform on which the grilling, basting and eventual self-basting takes place.

Despite some accents that are less authentic and full-blown than others, the actors masterfully assert their roots and relationships. As Harris, Ingram authentically inhabits his character’s natty sports coat, as he suggests a world-weariness and gentleness that is at odds with his position. It contributes handsomely to a sense of personal tension that dovetails with the play’s larger tensions.

While I think a more “wee” (Nelson’s description—twice) and less muscular Roche would better suit the play, the charismatic Burke is enormously likeable in the role, and during Roche’s long silences we see the gears of his mind spinning.

The plum role is Nelson, and Epstein plucks it handily from Hutchinson’s densely branching text, savoring all its juicy tartness and latent sweetness. Seemingly part gargantuan villain, part pit bull, part drinking buddy and part self-loathing tragic hero, Nelson is a complex role with an array of plumage belied by his tweed coat and earthy stance. Richly voiced and armed with a masterful array of business, Epstein is compulsively watchable as he hints at subtext beneath the subtext. By far the best work I have ever seen from this previously most valued commodity at Shakespeare & Company, Epstein rises to his full potential as a mature actor. And here, surrounded by sensible production values, uniformly fine support and astute direction, he shines ever the more brilliantly.

Above the acting area stretches a narrow map that extends from London to Liverpool and across the sea to Belfast and Londonderry. It is periodically covered with large photos and negatives of abuse victims and remains a potent banner throughout the play, which at times becomes a crucible. But don’t be misled; there is also a surprising warmth and bittersweet humor that observes the most Irish of notions: that if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

Absence of Malice (and Everything Else)

Madagascar

By J.T. Rogers, directed by Gus Reyes

Adirondack Theatre Festival, through July 30

Madagascar opens in darkness, with the image of a barefoot young woman, dressed in a simple white Empire-waisted robe, lit only by the candle in her hand. And then she opens her mouth, and for the next two hours you’re left wondering what happened to the play that might have been.

The young woman, June (Sherri Parker Lee), her mother Lillian (Mary Beth Peil) and her mother’s lover Nathan (Larry Pine) are embroiled in one of those colorful Southern family dramas, except that here the characters are upper-crust Manhattanites without a touch of wit, humor or pathos—and half the family is missing. Or perhaps, given the setting in a hotel in Rome and the repeated references to Vestal Virgins, Madagascar is trying to be a Greek tragedy, minus the hero—and the tragedy. What we have is the story of a great microeconomist, known for his majestic shock of black hair, whose wife gets tired of always waiting around for him to get back from his latest trip to Africa, and a post-adolescent son so horrified by his mother’s infidelity that he drops right out of his family’s life, leaving his twin sister to chuck her financial career and go in search of him. Neither the father nor the son ever appear on stage, however, and the other three characters occupy different “places in time” in the same hotel room, interacting only with each other’s shadows. The result is a mirage of a play that has no point, no heart, and no soul.

Even the most annoying, meaningless play has some good aspects. This one contains some interesting tidbits about ancient classical art, although nothing that gave me “goosebumps,” as it did the characters onstage. And there was an interesting story about a snorkeling trip to Mexico, in which mother and daughter each insert themselves into the role of companion to the handsome young son. But why? Why should we care about this unseen boy, let alone his personality-free mom and sis? Rogers and his longtime collaborator Reyes give us only a trio of people yapping away on stage. And that’s not drama.

—Kathy Ceceri

Ass Jokes in Iambic Pentameter

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

By Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, directed by William A. Finlay

Saratoga Shakespeare Company, Congress Park, through July 31

If it sometimes seems like Shakespeare is nothing but a bunch of cultural references, this harum-scarum color burst of a play, packed full of improvisational nods to sources as diverse as George Bush I and the Three Stooges, will make you feel like the hippest intellectual on the block. Spencer S. Christie, Christopher Rickett and Andy Place play every role from Juliet to Hamlet, with occasional stand-ins ranging from a sock-puppet ghost to Godzilla. And to keep things “relevant,” they turn the bloody Titus Andronicus into a cooking show and Othello into a rap, play Macbeth with thick sloppy Scottish accents and turn Polonius into a little old Jewish man. This show has been done before in the region, and Saratoga Shakespeare’s production more than lived up to reports of those earlier shows. Director William Finlay keeps his young men moving and encourages them to go with the flow, a formula that works perfectly with the company’s drop-in, family atmosphere.

Lloyd Waiwaiole’s costumes, starting with candy-color Keds and building from there with wigs, doublets and fake boobs, were simple yet over-the-top. And the bare-bones set by Louis Allen, pennants flapping in the breeze over billboards of the Bard, was a cross between the Globe and Coney Island. Add in butt and puke jokes galore, and you’ve got Shakespeare for slapstick-loving 11-year-olds—a perfect antidote to too much heavy thinking. The kids on the lawn all had a ball, and you will too.

—Kathy Ceceri


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