Celebrating Irish theater with skulls and grave digging

“A Skull in Connemara” is one of two  McDonagh plays featured  during  Irish Theatre Festival. They needed 100 skeletons to be made, only to destroy them a few weeks later. They needed graves to be

“A Skull in Connemara” is one of two  McDonagh plays featured  during  Irish Theatre Festival.

They needed 100 skeletons to be made, only to destroy them a few weeks later. They needed graves to be dug, night after night. It wasn’t for a science project or a Halloween party. The props were needed to construct the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival’s play by the Lantern Theater, “A Skull in Connemara.”

Held at St. Stephen’s Theater, the dark comedy tells the story of Leenane, Ireland – a town so small, the deaths of its people begin to outgrow the cemetery. As the protagonist, Mick Dowd makes his living digging up the graves of the townspeople to make space for new ones. Eventually he discovers he will have to dig up his late wife’s grave.

As he does, Dowd is faced with accusations that his wife’s death may not have been an accident. Although humorous, the play is an equally disturbing and dramatic tale that may or may not involve hammering through bones.

“This play is meant as a good time,” co-director M. Craig Getting said. “[Playwright] Martin Mcdonagh writes plays about horrible things. It might make you scared or [shocked], but you will have a fun time.”

“One of the goals of the play is definitely to make you feel unsettled and debate on it,” co-director Kathryn MacMillan said. “It never spells out the ending; it’s meant for the viewer to think about life beyond the play.”

The directors said it was this unsettling feeling mixed with humor that was the essence of Ireland.

“The playwright of ‘Connemara’ made a name for himself romanticizing rural Ireland,” Getting said. “Although, romanticizing might not be the right word as it is such a brutal and horrible place.”

Although not orchestrated, six local theater companies planned to perform Irish-themed plays this season, creating the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival, which runs until May 2011. The festival will provide discounts if tickets for two or more of the plays are bought.

“Part of the Irish storytelling technique is a great story that can make you gasp and groan and laugh uncontrollably,” MacMillan said. “The older audience becomes horrified by the play and the idea, but it’s Irish up and down to make a joke about death and alcoholism.”

“One thing that’s great about this play is that it shares a world view in humor and humor brutality,” she added. “The Lantern Theater has a track record of producing Irish plays and the founders were Irish-American guys.

MacMillan said these types of plays are focused on bringing human feelings to the show.

“It may not be unique to the festival, but the thing that is important about this play is that it couldn’t be funny unless it was heartbreaking,” MacMillan said. “If you don’t care about the plays and the need to connect, then I didn’t do my job. I need you to believe they are real even though they are extreme.”

Getting said the hardest part about production was putting the show together accurately. The many skulls used were purchased from a biology class to portray and authentic scene. After they purchased the skulls, molds were made from them.

“Holding onto the authenticity of the body parts was definitely a big challenge,” MacMillan said. “You could never get bored with it though. It was always ‘Will the femur end up in the right place?’”

Although putting the show together was difficult, the co-directors said the play was rewarding. They said they enjoyed working with the actors, actresses and fellow directors, and it served as a great learning experience for both MacMillan and Getting.

“I loved developing the characters Mick and Mairtin,” MacMillan said.

“Although the actors that play them are completely different ages, they develop a brother-like relationship and become boys just knocking each other in the balls,” she added.

MacMillan said her favorite part of the play was finding parts of people she knew in the characters.

The real story of the play is very prominent in Philadelphia, Getting said.

“Although there’s no huge message for the audience, I hope they learn from the struggles of the characters and relate to them,” Getting said.  “In the end, it’s a play about gossip. It’s who you would like to be perceived as. I came from a small school in the middle of Ohio. The students might not know your name, but they’ll know what you’re wearing and about your reputation. It is the same thing with politics in Philadelphia and is relevant in any city-[it’s] just magnified in the play.”

“A Skull in Connemara” is playing through Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater through Feb. 13.

Danielle Miess can be contacted at danielle.miess@temple.edu.

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