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Secrets and Lies on an Irish Outpost

CFA stages darkly comic Cripple of Inishmaan

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Drawn to dramas of people living on the fringe, director Thomas Martin (CFA’15) chose as his master’s thesis play Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, whose title character is an outsider among outsiders. Set on Inishmaan, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, the play weaves a darkly comic tale spawned by a true event in Inishmaan’s history, the arrival of a crew from the alternate universe of Hollywood on nearby Inishmore to make what would become a famous 1934 documentary, Man of Aran.

In reality, filmmaker Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North) inserted fictional elements into his narrative, which played unapologetically to prevailing Irish stereotypes. McDonagh toys with this mythology, as well as with how the Irish themselves can fuel and feed off it. The play focuses on local residents’ hopes of movie stardom, including those of an 18-year-old orphan and outcast known as Cripple Billy, desperate to escape the tedium of life on the wind-pummeled island.

The College of Fine Arts’ production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, opens tonight and runs through May 2 at the Boston University Theatre’s Lane-Comley Studio 210.

Conor Proft (CFA’17) in the title role of Cripple Billy Claven in the CFA production of <em>The Cripple of Inishmaan.</em>

Conor Proft (CFA’17) in the title role of Cripple Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan.

“Like most of this dramatist’s work, Inishmaan is a story about how and why we tell stories,” writes Ben Brantley in a New York Times review of a 2014 Broadway production of the play, starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as Billy. “And as is often true with Mr. McDonagh, most of whose plays are set in provincial Ireland,” Brantley adds, “it takes a village to tell a story.”

Through McDonagh’s unsparing eyes, life for the tiny population of Inishmaan is petty and harsh, and its currency is lies. The film crew’s arrival turns the brutal sliver of a place upside down, stirring up its official gossipmonger and his fellow islanders, especially the restive younger inhabitants who long for a piece of the action, unprecedented as it is.

With his contorted body, Billy has been confined to the three-mile stretch of land his entire life, unable to board the open boats to Galway on the mainland. Besides, “cripples are bad luck,” according to the locals. Played by Conor Proft (CFA’17), Billy, whose parents have both drowned, has dreams of his own, ignited by the frenzy surrounding the film. Much of the play’s often gut-wrenching irony stems from the fact that Billy, as it turns out, might be less hobbled than many of those around him.

Citing what he calls the “Lucky Charm Leprechaun,” shorthand for depictions of the Irish, Martin says McDonagh pushes against sentimentality in the play, which premiered in 1996. A noted screenwriter as well as playwright (his film credits include In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, as well as the Oscar-winning Six Shooters), McDonagh has been nominated three times for a best play Tony Award: for The Pillowman, The Lonesome West, and The Beauty Queene of Leenane, all set in his native Ireland. “I quickly came to love how McDonagh explores how individuals and communities view themselves—and the myths that grow from these views,” says Martin, who has directed several BU productions, including the Boston Center for American Performance staging of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, which the director sees as the quintessential outsider story.

Tricia O’Toole (CFA’15) as Helen McCormick in McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, which runs tonight through Saturday at the BU Theatre’s Lane-Comley Studio 210.

Tricia O’Toole (CFA’15) as Helen McCormick in The Cripple of Inishmaan, which runs through Saturday at the BU Theatre’s Lane-Comley Studio 210.

“There are some really lovely moments in Inishmaan,” Martin says. And the play is, by all accounts, hilarious. “But truth is very fuzzy in this play,” he adds. As Brantley puts it, “Don’t believe everything you hear in Inishmaan.”

The Cripple of Inishmaan runs tonight through Sunday at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performances are tonight, Wednesday, April 29, and tomorrow, Thursday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, May 1, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, May 2, and Sunday, May 3, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 general admission; $10 for students, senior citizens, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, and WGBH and WBUR members; $6 for those with CFA memberships; and free with a BU ID at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability. Tickets and further information are available here or by calling the box office at 617-933-8600. Take an MBTA Green Line E trolley to Symphony or the Orange Line to Massachusetts Avenue.

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