On a public television biography that aired last week, Charles Schulz admitted to milking a lot of humor from straight-up violence. From a 21st century perspective, it might be odd to think of “Peanuts” as violent, but it was, of course. Schulz hurt his characters. We laughed. A simple, infallible equation that worked almost every time.
The Fusion Theatre Company is staging the New Mexico premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Cell Theatre. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this play is so successful. Drenched from top to bottom in comedic, stylized violence, it fits in perfectly with the tone of the times.
This play might be smarter (it’s certainly funnier) than “South Park,” but it’s powered by a sense of humor that’s similarly crude, demeaning and sadistic. Since all the characters speak with an Irish accent, and the story revolves around terrorism, we can call it art. Plus, you have to have some admiration for a playwright who can make brutality toward animals, of all things, so hilarious. Yet, you still may wonder how we can laugh out loud at all this cruelty and gore.
As Schultz said, it’s easy to laugh at violence when it obviously isn’t real, and when it happens to somebody else. What if all those guns the actors waved around were real? What if they aimed them at the audience and sprayed real bullets into the crowd?
Who’s laughing now, punk?
Thankfully, the play doesn’t require that kind of reflection. Donny (William Sterchi) and Davey (Justin Lenderking) have a dead cat on their hands, Davey having found the poor animal with its brains knocked out in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, the cat, named Wee Thomas, belongs to a psychopath named Padraic (Ross Kelly), who’s a second lieutenant in the INLA, a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army. Donny was supposed to look after Wee Thomas while Padraic was away. When Padraic finds out his cat was murdered, it sets off a chain of violence that’s shocking to behold.
Well, it would’ve been shocking about 30 years ago, before this kind of cartoon bloodbath became commonplace in mass culture. But even if it isn’t shocking, it is extremely funny—and what an amazing cast. You won’t find a better ensemble on stage in Albuquerque. It’s such a pleasure to see how they feed off each other. The violence—both verbal and literal—is performed like music, players exchanging riffs so sharp and dangerous they leave the walls, floors, ceiling and furniture splattered with blood.
Sterchi often plays the heavy in this kind of production, and he’s very good at it. Here, he plays a goofy character, and he’s very good at that, too. One of the best around, Sterchi’s presence usually means a show is going to be excellent, and that’s true this time.
Kelly’s lethal mix of pretty boy looks and serious acting chops is an enjoyable combo. In this play, he’s a charismatic cartoon psycho, switching between caring tenderness and appalling brutality with ease.
I’ve seen a lot of Lenderking around town in the last year or so, and his real strength is his eccentricity. No matter what character he plays, his presentation is appealingly weird. In this case, seeing this big, hulking dude play a vaguely effeminate sissy is a freaky good time.
The actors playing lesser roles are all very good, too. The best performance in the show, though, might be Steve Tolin’s, whose amazing special effects result in some truly eye-popping gore.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore isn’t deep or insightful or thoughtful in any way, but it is good, dirty fun. Besides, at this point, most of us realize the war on terrorism has become a joke, so we might as well get in a few good laughs at its expense. As Schultz said, violence, especially the senseless kind, is naturally funny, and what’s more senselessly violent than terrorism? McDonagh’s play isn’t realistic, and it won’t hit too close to home, so sit back, enjoy the barbarism and appreciate the fact that violence in the real world isn’t nearly this agreeable.