That is the sort of dark humor at stake, and not to ruin it for you, but the cat gets it anyway. At least, that's where the story starts. Donny (George Sanchez) and Davey (Andrew Larimer) have a dead cat on their hands, and someone is going to have to tell Danny's pathologically violent son Padraic (Pete McElligott) that his furry friend, likely the only creature he truly cares about, is gone. It's not news one would want to have to break to a vigilante (or guerilla or terrorist, depending on your point of view).
As both a cat fanatic and a regular fanatic, Padraic is the namesake Lieutenant of Inishmore in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's award-winning comedy. The bipolar farce reels back and forth from menacing cruelty to the sweet devotion of a committed pet lover. Ultimately, however, the absurdity is not about harming defenseless animals but a challenging question about how people come to accept violence at any level, from a source of humor to a justifiable means to an end.
The NOLA Project and Southern Rep have joined forces to stage Martin McDonagh's odd play, which is gratuitously violent, suspenseful and deep. Especially with the addition of sophisticated stage effects, it's an invigorating evening of both ambitious and rewarding theater.
Padraic and some of his former cohorts-turned-rivals are do-it-yourself terrorists who are, in theory, bent on driving the British out of Northern Ireland, but in reality spend so much time dispensing personal vengeance that they've lost all of their bearings. The context is clearly about Irish political groups that embraced such a militant approach to the guerilla campaign that they bombed pubs and public places, regardless of what harm might be done to innocent bystanders. The psychopath at the center of the action, Padraic, is too crazed and violent for even the groups that have taken the by-any-means-necessary approach. So he's formed his own splinter group, if one person can call himself a group. That reinforces the point of an individual conflating his own whims with a grand cause. He further breaks everything down into simple oppositions: everything is essentially pro-Irish or pro-British, pro-Catholic or pro-British, pro-Padraic or pro-British. You're either with him or against him. The only streak of compassion in Padraic's soul is his love for his cat Wee Thomas, but he's militant about that, too.
Donny and Davey try to break the news to Padraic slowly by inventing a story that the cat is just sick, but that only forces him to put aside his random terror campaign and return home to care for Wee Thomas. Donny and Davey quickly try to cover up their lie with another one. Getting to the bottom of the animal's demise and the responsible parties gets complicated, especially because just about everybody on stage feels entitled to dispense their own brand of hair-trigger justice for crimes great and small, actual offenses and perceived slights.
The cast is solid throughout. McElligott instills Padraic with a sustained fury and wit. Sanchez and Larimer cower and wheedle about ineffectually yet sympathetically. Dane Rhodes has an appropriately dry sense of humor for Christy's shrewd but bungled mission. Kathlyn Tarwater does a nice job as the mercurial tomboy Mairead. James Bartelle is quite impressive playing almost his entire appearance hanging upside down. At times, the Irish brogue is a bit too thick.
Sean Creel's set makes effective use of the odd configuration at Southern Rep. But one of the more stunning technical achievements is the steady flow of blood in the staging. The Broadway run of the play reportedly used six gallons of fake blood per night. This production can't be using much less.
The violence in the play is intriguing because of the way McDonagh runs the gamut from employing it for humorous to horrific effects. At first it's discomforting to watch a man hung upside down and being tortured, but the next minute, one is laughing at the tormentor saying, "Hang on a minute," while he answers the phone. It's not particularly difficult to know when the use of violence is wrong, but it's not as easy to figure out how it becomes funny, acceptable or even desirable as a form of justice. At what point is complicity reached? It's a fiendishly clever device that McDonagh wields, and in this production, it's deadly accurate.