Stage director Josh McKerrow once worked in a Halloween fun house, where his job was to scare people.
“There’s a little bit of the haunted house, where the monsters jump out at you,” he said about his latest directorial effort, Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” The black comedy opens Friday at the Laurel Mill Playhouse and runs to Nov. 24.
Featuring a cast of eight, the play is about a deranged Irish militant who tortures drug dealers, robs fish-and-chip shops and seeks revenge when his beloved black cat, Wee Thomas, is killed.
“It has modern cinematic sensibilities, like a Quentin Tarantino movie,” said McKerrow. “It’s been fun to block — we’ve got characters pointing pistols at each other.”
McKerrow said it’s been a challenge to find just the right tone for the mix of comedy and violence.
“If it’s too serious, it’s disturbing, and if it’s too light, you’re not taking the subject [or playwright] seriously,” he said.
First presented in 2001 in London, the play was written by Irish-English playwright and filmmaker McDonagh, who also wrote and directed the movies “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” both featuring Colin Farrell.
McDonagh also wrote “The Pillowman,” a 2003 play about investigators in a totalitarian state who begin to suspect a man who writes stories about murdered children, believing him to be guilty of the actual crime. (“The Pillowman” is currently running to Nov. 23 at the Silver Spring Stage in Montgomery County.)
McDonagh sets“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” in 1993 during the start of peace negotiations in Ireland. It tells the story of Padraic, a psychotic gunman who has been kicked out of the Irish Republican Army for being too crazy.
“As an actor, it really challenges you to show the true emotions while also [keeping] the comedic timing,” said Nicholas Hanni who plays Padraic. “You’re being funny and being serious and getting the audience to laugh, and be completely horrified by what’s happening.”
Hanni, 22, a Harpers Ferry resident who recently graduated from West Virginia University, studied “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” in college and sees parallels to McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths.”
“Both take you to the heights of comedy, and then dash you down to the pits of tragedy, horror and disgust,” he said.
McDonagh draws you into the characters — you begin to get to know them and laugh — and then all of a sudden, something brutal and violent happens.
“It’s very much a roller coaster ride,” said Hanni. “What just happened? You get emotionally thrown off.”
Like McKerrow, he said the play makes him think of Tarantino but with a difference.
“It’s the same kind of violence, but more on the comedy,” he said.
“The high level of comedy is what makes the low all the lower,” said Hanni.
Unknown to Padraic, Donny’s long-haired teenage neighbor, Davey (Matthew Purpora), found a black cat with a crushed skull on the side of the road and takes it to Donny, thinking it’s his.
Both terrified of Padraic’s murderous temper, Davey and Donny try to create a substitute for Wee Thomas by painting an orange cat called Sir Roger with black shoe polish.
Sir Roger, however, belongs to Davey’s younger sister, Mairead (Erin Wagner), a 16-year-old who shoots out the eyes of cows with an air rifle to protest the meat industry and, like Padraic, loves her cat,
Mad about Padraic and glad he’s back on the island, she sings “The Patriot Game” with him, a song sung by the real IRA in the 1950s.
“She seems to have real feelings about freeing Northern Ireland,” said Wagner about her character, who also sings “The Dying Rebel,” a song about losing a son in the 1916 Easter Rising revolt in Dublin.
The young lovers decide to make a life together and start their own splinter group, Wee Thomas’ Army.
When three men from Ulster come to town in search of James, the stage begins to pile up with blood, gore and body parts.
Wagner, 24, who lives in Washington, D.C., earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at Cornell University and also studied Shakespeare in London for a year.
She’s seen two of McDonagh’s plays and likes what he’s doing in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”
“He has some very clever lines, and I love the language,” she said. “[He’s created] a very musical way of talking, and the characters enjoy saying the words.”
Actors speak with Irish-sounding accents, she said.
“I’m definitely a fan,” she said. “I think he writes very absurdly, which I like.”
She also said McDonagh’s “sheer overblown violence” is a form of black comedy that he writes very well.
But she also notes that the play is about “a real issue that happened.”
“When you step back and think about it in real terms, you [realize] the cost of all these issues,” she said.
McKerrow agreed with Wagner that the play can be seen as a way of coming at serious issues through the method of black comedy.
“He’s writing about terrorists but underneath they’re psychopaths. … They’re using the political situation to act out their madness on the world,” he said.
Hanni said for him, the play is fundamentally about human nature, which everyone can relate to.
“A lot of the characters are driven by emotions” he said. “They go with their gut feelings instead of using logic, which is what causes [all] the drama.”