Anglo-Irish playwright brings hit across Atlantic


June 26, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

By age 27, playwright Martin McDonagh had four plays running on London's West End. Now Theatre Hopkins is giving Baltimoreans a chance to see what all the fuss is about with the local debut of "The Cripple of Inishmaan."

This is a decidedly kinder, gentler introduction to McDonagh than his better-known dramas, "The Beauty Queen on Leenane" and "The Lonesome West," a pair of Tony Award nominees that make up two-thirds of a trilogy about a desolate, poverty-stricken Irish locale.

Granted, "Inishmaan," set on an Irish island of that name, is once again populated with the cruel and small-minded. But McDonagh's predilection for violence and profanity are more subdued in this script, which has been directed by Suzanne Pratt with empathy, a term that would hardly apply to the Leenane plays.

"The Cripple of Inishmaan" takes place in 1934, when American filmmaker Robert Flaherty arrived on the neighboring island of Inishmore to film his documentary, "Man of Aran." Several residents of Inishmaan hope to get small parts in the film, none more fervently than so-called "Cripple Billy," a young man raised by a pair of foster aunts who seem to think his mind is as stunted as his body.

In his Theatre Hopkins debut, Jason Williams is touching as Billy, leaving no doubt that this is a sensitive, serious-minded soul. If anything, it is the other locals -including the sitcom-like bantering aunts played by Binnie Ritchie Holum and Carol Mason - who are stunted, as Billy makes clear in a monologue movingly delivered by Williams.

"The Cripple of Inishmaan" is part of another trilogy by McDonagh, a Londoner born of Irish parents. The play's clever plotting reinforces the fact that its youthful author is a natural storyteller, as well as a prolific one. But while storytelling is an admirable craft, it needs depth of character as well as themes before it can graduate to the level of art.

Theatre Hopkins performs in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through July 9. Tickets are $10 and $12. Call 410-516-7159.

Vreeland at `Full Gallop'

"I'm back up on my horse - full gallop, you bet!" actress Maravene Loeschke says in the guise of fashion editor Diana Vreeland, the subject of the biographical play, "Full Gallop," at Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival.

Loeschke gets to demonstrate Vreeland's back-in-the-saddle spunk for more than 90 minutes in this nearly one-woman show (the off-stage role of Vreeland's maid is played by Ruth Drucker). But the actress, dean of Towson's College of Fine Arts and Communication, is rarely fully convincing as the late fashion maven who headed Harper's Bazaar for almost three decades and Vogue for one.

It isn't that Loeschke - directed by her husband, C. Richard Gillespie - lacks style, though she does lack age, never appearing credible as a septuagenarian. The problem lies primarily in the epigrammatic nature of the script, co-written by Mark Hampton and actress Mary Louise Wilson, who first performed it.

There is a tissue of a plot. The year is 1971, and Vreeland, just back from a four-month retreat to Europe after being unexpectedly fired from Vogue, is giving a dinner party, despite a lack of money and of guests.

For the most part, however, this framework exists to support a series of Vreeland's pronouncements: "Blue jeans are the greatest invention since the gondola," or, "Everyone needs a splash of bad taste. No taste is what I'm against." Amusing as these may be, they come across sounding frighteningly similar to the dictums of Larry King as parodied on "Saturday Night Live."

Loeschke does have the Vreeland look down pat, from the Kabuki-like makeup to the jet black wig. And set designer Thom Bumblauskus has created an elegantly detailed set.

But it is only when the actress has a chance to introduce a touch of tenderness into the role - when Vreeland is discussing her beloved husband, for example - that the character comes alive.

"Full Gallop" is performed in the Studio Theatre in Towson University's Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Show times are 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through July 1. Tickets are $15. Call 410-830-2787.

Leading the Bard bash

Local actor and director James Kinstle has been named artistic director of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, Ceil Martin, executive director, has announced. Kinstle brings with him "a tremendous amount of knowledge and a new slant," Martin said.

Kinstle, 33, nicknamed "Jimi," is a Florida native who moved to Baltimore in 1985. Since getting his bachelor's in theater from Towson University in 1990, Kinstle has acted in numerous area productions. He began directing in 1995, working at the Spotlighters and with Mother Lode and the Flying Tongues. Last season he directed two residency programs for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

Workshop for the challenged

Fell's Point Corner Theatre will hold a free Creative Drama Workshop for Challenged Children and Adults (including those in wheelchairs) July 5-30. Directed by Barry Feinstein, the workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays at the theater, 251 S. Ann St. Enrollment is limited to 12. For information call 410-466-8341.

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