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Theater Review:

Irish Repertory’s "BY THE BOG OF CATS" at Victory Gardens Theater


Hester Swane, the mystical and defiant heroine of "By the Bog of Cats," enters dragging a dead black swan across the fog-laden stage. She is seeking a spot on this soggy ground in the Irish Midlands to bury an outcast like herself – the limp, frozen carcass of the bird enclosing a part of Hester’s obscure past in its fragile soul. This indelible opening image haunts and envelopes Marina Carr’s 1998 Gaelic tragedy receiving its American premiere by Irish Repertory Theatre at Victory Gardens.

The scene also joins the elements together in a searingly inevitable way as the swan signifies air, yet the crusty ground (which cakes around everyone’s shoes) firmly establishes the characters’ connection to the earth. Hester has carried the bird from its watery grave as the fires of rage and resentment burn in her soul.

In Carr’s fiercely poetic play, supernatural events don’t so much clash with the natural world as co-mingle with it – spawning a sort of alluring interdependency between the living and the dead; past, present and future; and those vague areas in between.

While "By the Bog of Cats" echoes Euripedes’ "Medea," it does not merely "Irishify" the story of a scorned sorceress who commits infanticide in retaliation for her husband’s betrayal and for the deeper sacrifice of not wanting to dishonor her children with the blight of exile. Instead Carr gets inside "Medea’s" universal themes of alienation and the horrors wrought through prejudice and intolerance and applies them to a compelling story in its own right, set in Ireland’s isolated County Offaly.

In fact, there are moments in the play when audiences may forget about Medea all together and flash back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter" – most evident in the protagonist’s name – Hester – reminiscent of Hester Prynne (also accused of witchcraft and adultery).

Hester Swane is a tinker, or Irish gypsy, who lives on the bog with her illegitimate 7-year-old daughter Josie – the result of Hester’s long love affair with the dashing poor farmer Carthage Kilbride. But Carthage decides to marry the young, wealthy Caroline Cassidy – daughter of tyrannical landowner Xavier (who might be Hester’s father) – and take Josie away with them. He also thinks he can drive his lover away with a guarantee of financial security. The shunned Hester, however, paves a fiery path of vengeance.

Other pivotal characters include the blind Catwoman, a folkloric prophet figure, who speaks with ghosts; and Carthage’s vain and ambitious mother, Elsie Kilbride, who will stop at nothing to gain a "respectable" place in society. At one point, she torments little Josie by shouting: "We’ll batter the legitimacy into you yet!"

If there is one fault with Carr’s story, it’s in the surprisingly ill-defined relationship between Hester and Carthage. Their bond must be absolutely inextricable, dangerous and wildly impassioned. But Carthage hovers somewhat superficially in the background, with all the paradoxes and passion coursing through Hester’s dubious blood.

Overall, the playwright meticulously weaves metaphor, melodrama and absurdist humor into this story that toggles a fine line between benevolence and destruction. When the innocent Caroline says, "I feel like I’m walkin’ on someone’s grave," on her tumultuous wedding day, she illustrates the short distance between bliss and grief.

Director Kay Martinovich is adept at balancing the script’s luminous contradictions, but the production feels a bit wobbly in places – particularly in the middle of the second act. Irish Rep has assembled a group of vigorous actors. Tracy Michelle Arnold’s Hester displays a grounded yet supernatural sense of invincibility peppered with an aching vulnerability. She is a beguiling actress, who sets the stage on fire with her measured urgency. Arnold is well-paired with the stinging but compassionate Mark L. Montgomery as Carthage.

MaryAnn Thebus plumbs the depths of wise eccentricity as Catwoman and is at her slyly comedic best sipping wine from a bowl during the raucous wedding party. David Darlow is especially terrifying as the hypocritical, megalomaniacal Xavier Cassidy; and Amanda Archilla adds an honesty and pained depth to Caroline, a mere pawn in Carthage’s misguided status game.

Although she gets the most laughs, Caitlin Hart as the self-interested Elsie can tone down the caricature and get a firmer grasp on her character’s complex motivations. As Josie, Zoe B. Kanters (who alternates the role with Susan Wiltrakis) is confident but needs to inject more truth into her young character’s anguish and confusion.

Michelle Habeck’s pounded-down peat set and Jaymi Lee Smith’s misty lighting convey the Irish Midlands’ rugged gloom. Also underscoring the divergent forces at play are Lisa Lewandowski’s multi-textured costumes – from cat pelts and leather coats to communion and wedding dresses, all of which get soiled by the constant swirl of muck and dust under their feet.•

"By the Bog of Cats" runs through June 24 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $22-$42. Call 773-871-3000.

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