For its third show of the inaugural season, the Savannah Repertory Theatre will stage Martin McDonagh's black comedy "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," which features cats, guns, torture, gallons of blood and side-splitting hilarity.
Set in early 1990s Ireland, a "mad" ex-lieutenant of the Irish Republican Army, Padraic, is in the midst of conducting a torture session when he receives a disconcerting phone call. His best friend for the past 15 years, a black cat named Wee Thomas, is sickly. He abandons the torture session to return to Inishmore to see about his friend.
Wee Thomas is not just sickly though, he has been found dead. Padraic embarks on a rampage to avenge the death of his friend. Guns are involved. Cats and people are killed, but in the end, it might have been for nothing.
McDonagh's most recent work, the film "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," received seven Academy Award nominations and won the Irish playwright a Golden Globe for best screenplay. Actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell also won Golden Globes for their work in the film.
McDonagh has been writing plays since the mid-1990s. Among his famous works are the films "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths," as well as the play "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."
The logistics of "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" are tough. At one point, a person is hung from the rafters. Fake and real cats have to be used for varying effects. (Note: no real cats are harmed in the making of this play.) Loads of guns that have to fire are also used. And then there's the blood.
"We're figuring, four gallons of stage blood a night," said show director and Savannah Rep artistic director Ken Neil Hailey. "Not to mention the gun play. The guns we got are incredible. They were done by an actual gunsmith outside of town. They're replicas of two different versions of WWII guns.They're replicas that have never had anything inside of them."
While our national conversation at the current moment is directed almost entirely at violence and especially gun violence, it is important to note that "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" is at its core an anti-violence play. A popular comparison would be just about any Quentin Tarantino film, but especially "Pulp Fiction." Violence becomes a satirical waste of energy through the play and invariably does no real good.
"I think, ultimately, despite all of the violence of the play, the message of the play is actually about non-violence," Nick Chris (Padraic) said. "It's about how nonsensical all this violence is and how all this violence begets more violence. It's a very powerful message."
"The other point, that unfortunately keeps on being needed so much, is the total pointlessness of terrorism," Hailey added. "It ends up with no result. It just keeps going and going and going and going and going â€¦"
For Hailey, this is one of the first straightforward plays he's directed in some time. The staging resembles that of a traditional thrust theater arrangement, as opposed to the theater in the round style they used for the past two shows. The logistics of the play have dictated a lot of the staging - mostly the cleanup each night that has to be done for the stage to be reset for the next showing.
For the first time, Hailey also has the mixture of actors he's been trying to gather since opening the new repertory last year. Drawing from both the local and regional pool of Equity professionals and up-and-comers from New York, Savannah Rep's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" features a wide cast of seasoned actors.
Out of Savannah, Gary Shelby will handle the role of Donny and South Carolinian Burke Brown plays Brendon. Two SCAD students, Drew Gripe as James and John Posner as Joey, have also made the cut. Chris and Cam Wenrich, who plays Davey, are from New York, while Jennifer Bishop (Mairead) and Jaryl Draper (Christy) represent Savannah Rep Company.
Casting the cats was made easier thanks to Savannah's new cat cafe, Purrvana Cafe and Cat Lounge, where the play's main real cat calls home.
In his first role in Savannah, Chris approached the character of Padraic with empathy to interpret his violent rages more realistically.
"I love anything that's a little outside of the box, or a challenge," Chris said. "One of the things that I picked up on throughout the script is that I think this man is a little bit insecure in his sexuality. Especially given the time and place he's brought up - Ireland in the early '90s.
"He really wouldn't have any type of outlet to understand that or express that. I think this is a character who's had so much difficulty making friends or communicating. So much insecurity, that that has caused him to lash out in very violent ways, because it enables him to prove he's a man and he's strong and he's confident. Someone can call me girly, but I am going to torture him afterward and they're going to regret it.
"You always have to empathize with the person you're playing and understand why they do the things they do and why they behave the way that do. Here's someone who's had so much trouble making friends; the cat is truly his only friend in the world."
IF YOU GO
What: Savannah Repertory Theatre presents "The Lieutenant of Inishmore"
When: 8 p.m. March 1-3, 8-10; 3 p.m. March 4, 11
Where: Savannah Rep Playshop, 980 Industry Drive
Cost: $20-$25; 18 and older