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[whitespace] 'The Cripple of Inishmaan' The Yolk's on Him: Sarah Overman has some fun at the expense of Zane Allen in 'The Cripple of Inishmaan.'

Photograph by David Allen

Food for Gossip

Rumors are the coin of the realm in 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'

By Heather Zimmerman

TRUTH MAY BE STRANGER than fiction, but rumors--true or fabricated--are what most interest the village folk in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan. TheatreWorks presents the Northern California premiere of this comic drama about a small town in 1930s Ireland that proves that the rumor mill has always been the most efficient form of human communication. Gossip-mongering is the chief form of entertainment in Inishmaan, a small island off the western coast of Ireland, but for Johnnypateenmike (Edward Sarafian), it's also a living. He literally feeds himself by peddling pieces of "news" around to the villagers.

One of Johnny's better-known stories involves the drowning deaths of the parents of Cripple Billy (Travis Engle), a teenager with a withered arm and leg. Rumor has it that when he was an infant, Billy's parents drowned themselves because they had a deformed child--and they say Johnnypateenmike's gossip is rarely wrong. So Johnny knows he'll be eating well when he brings word that an American filmmaker has arrived to make a movie on a neighboring island.

Gossipy small towns may be a familiar stereotype, but McDonagh's characters aren't the kindly peasants you might expect. These characters are somewhat self-centered and happily spend their time indulging in their own little obsessions. Billy himself obsesses over leaving Inishmaan. Although it's his home, the townspeople are so matter-of-fact in their misguided assertions of his ugliness and uselessness as to be unintentionally cruel, and sometimes it is intentional. Among those who do care for Billy, most notably his adopted aunties, Kate and Eileen (Elizabeth Benedict and Phoebe Moyer), their concern for him is mingled, rather honestly, with selfishness.

As the title character, Engle makes Billy's pain palpable and his hopes urgently real. He has an intriguing foil in Sarah Overman as Helen, his chief tormentor and--wouldn't you know it?--also the object of his affections. Mark Phillips is superb as the walking wounded Babbybobby, a gruff seaman who is still grieving over his wife's death.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is ostensibly a comedy, so the characters are bound to be not quite as fleshed out as in a drama--we're meant more to laugh at their foibles than to explore why they have them. Yet McDonagh gives us enough teasing hints at what might make these characters tick that it's unsatisfying not to learn very much about them. McDonagh populates the play with a strange hybrid of characters and broad caricatures. Likewise, for the most part, director Robert Kelley has tapped more readily into the townspeople's streak of malice than into their hearts. The villagers' wit, banter and blunt ways are usually quite funny, but like the gossip that Johnnypateenmike prides himself on spreading, it never seems like you're getting the whole story.

The Cripple of Inishmaan plays Tuesday at 7:30pm (except May 2), Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (plus April 22 and 29 at 2pm) and Sunday at 2 or 7pm through May 7 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$37. (650.903.6000)

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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