More than a Handful of Clever: A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE

Photo credit: Theatre on Fire

by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Darren Evans

presented by Theatre on Fire
Charlestown Working Theater
Charlestown, MA
October 12 – October 27th, 2012
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Charlestown) Successful comedy and drama scripts employ a slightly sadistic withhold-and-give strategy with audiences. Comedy or tension must be built and dissipated and built again. There must be some normalcy to lead us on to the surprise. Think of the easygoing date that occurs before the heroin overdose in the movie Pulp Fiction. Two couples are out on a date making small talk. We know it will end up weird because the movie already has been very weird, but the date is downright boring, and the usually witty dialogue is purposely pedestrian. The payoff comes just a few minutes later with a group of strangers trying to decide what to do with a mob boss’s wife as she is overdosing.

Now picture a writer who decides to make every bit of dialogue bizarre and amusing, every situation more bizarre than the last, and you have Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane. It’s a strange tale of a man on the quest for his lost hand, but the quest may be just an excuse to torture others. Such a script could look like an actor’s dream at first glance, with easy punchlines and raised stakes, but it’s actually loaded with pitfalls, as the audience quickly becomes acclimatized to the weirdness on stage.

It would take a confident cast to underplay the weirdness while still making the script believable. This play must go for realism over theatrics if it is going to be anything more than a sugar rush. Charlestown Working Theater’s production largely isn’t up to the task. Many of the actors create likable and energetic
characters, but they push too hard and can’t make the bizarre dialogue work. When this fails, the play devolves into a parlor game of trying to guess what strange thing will happen next.

There are two notable exceptions, however, which make the play enjoyable. Jeff Gill (Carmichael) holds the audience’s attention from the opening seconds as the lead role of the one-handed man looking for vengeance. Director Darren Evans wisely gives Gill time to think and do nothing on stage, which builds up
the highest moments of tension. Much like other memorable villains on stage and screen, Carmichael gains our sympathy despite his sadistic actions, as Gill drapes him in slow weariness. This is a man who knows he has wasted his life on a fool’s errand, and carries out his tasks of torture only because the world has long since proven no good.

Kudos also goes to scenic designer Luke J. Sutherland for creating the perfect adobe feel of an Arizona hotel gone to seed. His yellowing wagon-wheel esthetics grounds the play in a faded earthiness.

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