By the Bog of Cats, by Irish playwright Marina Carr is now playing at The Artistic Home Theatre through March 26th. This play is trying to be a great many things at once: a take on the Greek myth of Medea, an expression of traditional Irish folklore and ghost stories, and a contemporary drama about small town prejudices and class structures ruining lives.
I’m not very certain how well it accomplishes half of its lofty goals narratively. There’s too much going on for it to be truly coherent, but what it does do is create a showcase for the talents of female actors of all ages.
Kristin Collins is Hester Swane, child of free-spirited Josie Swane. She’s born and raised on the titular bog. Part of the weakness of the script is how often everyone says the name. It’s almost like those bad teen horror films from the 1980s where the lead actresses said each other’s name in every sentence so people could tell their bland blondness apart, or gangster rappers tagging themselves in every verse. If you had a drinking game that involved drinking every time somebody says Bog of Cats, you’d be dead before the end of this play – that’s how egregious and grating it is. But the weakness of the script is outshone at every turn by the absolutely terrific acting by everyone in this production.
Kristin Collins is terrific. Hester Swane is an awful person, but sympathetic as well. She was turned awful by being basically raised by wolves and then experiencing a lifetime of abuse. You meet her during the moment when her life falls apart. Her desperation and lack of emotional resources is palpable in this performance. Everything Hester’s hoped and dreamed for her entire life is going up in flames, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it, because to stop it, she’d have to be someone else. Someone conformist, and probably someone who isn’t a Tinker.
If you don’t know about Tinkers in Ireland, just swap out Gypsy with Tinker and you have the basic idea. And add in every bit of racial prejudice and stereotyping that goes into it as well. That’s who Hester is. And by Tinker standards she is much more conformist than most, having made some money and left her old caravan for a little house by the bog, where she’s raising her seven-year-old daughter, Josie.
Josie is the child of Hester and her former lover, Carthage Kilbride, played by the excellent Tim Musachio in this production. He’s a loving and devoted father to Josie, but a weak man and a son of an overbearing mother, the off-the-hook wonderful Jane DeLaubenfels, who is every small-town, small-minded, vindictive harridan you can imagine. From her cutting cruelty to the seven-year-old to her contempt and pious condescension to everyone else, she is utterly awful but completely real at the same time. You know people like this. We all know them. Those people who feel the need to police other people’s actions in the pettiest of ways. She’d be worth seeing the show for even if the other performances weren’t so strong, but they are all this good.
The cause of Hester’s crisis is the fact that Carthage is marrying the daughter of the small-time local land baron Xavier Cassidy played by Frank Nall. Here again an actor takes something that could be cartoonish and turns it into that guy you know from the Country Club. The one who treats the waiters like garbage and continually lords it over anyone he feels he is superior to and then goes home to the smug sleep of the just. That guy.
Somehow, he’s managed to raise the decent and gracious Caroline Cassidy, played by Kelsey Phillips, whose blond, polished perfection is the perfect contrast to Hester’s dark, passionate dishevelment. But again, she mines depth out of a stereotype and you actually feel bad that her wedding day becomes the worst day ever. Caroline deserves better than all of them. She’s a compassionate person, even though she’s set up as Hester’s rival.
Part of the agreement of the wedding is that Hester will leave the house Carthage built for her and move to another town, away from the bog and the neighborhood. Hester can simply not do this. And she has a pressing psychological reason, which the play reveals, and which rings entirely true and sets up the shocking ending. Or it would be shocking if we all hadn’t read Medea.
Which brings us to miss Elise Wolf. This actor is so young, and so, so, good. Her performance is completely natural and amazing, and her singing voice is worth the price of admission alone.
That’s the main part of the play, but because it’s throwing and whole bunch of stuff in a bag and tossing it in the bog, so to speak, that’s not all there is. There’s an entirely different mystical track with its own set of characters.
There’s the weird “Ghost Fancier” played by John LaFlamboy, who ends up appearing to be a ghost himself at the end. Then there’s Joseph Swane, Hester’s brother, played by Kieran O’Connor, who appears as captain exposition in the second act and set up the idea that Hester can go to extremes. These guys are great at their parts, but sadly, they are the part of the play that is needlessly infodumpy and doesn’t work well. It’s so heavy-handed in these parts that it’s tiresome. There had to be a better way to get this stuff across.
The one mystical character who works is Catwoman, played by the absolutely superb Caroline Dodge Latta. Catwoman is the local witch. She has genuine second sight and is weird as can be. But she’s also the sort of weird person that would be tolerated in a traditional society. She’s also super chummy with the priest, much to the horror of Mrs. Kilbride, which is comedy gold.
Despite the men having all the financial power, this is a play at the end about women in a small town. It’s about how women treat each other in their closest relationships and the damage they hand down generation to generation. It makes an excellent and powerful statement in that regard ably communicated by this exceptional cast of female actors.
This play has its problems, but this ensemble has none. They don’t put a foot wrong with this material and if you want to see some great actors with great Irish accents this is a play for you.
Director John Mossman got the absolute most out of this material. And the scenic design by Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky is gorgeous. Whoever did the bog painting is amazing. The costumes by Zach Wagner – particularly the wedding dresses and Catwoman’s rig – are fabulous.
Photos by Joe Mazza of Brave Lux Photography.
Tickets available at the Artistic Home Theatre website.