A Behanding in Spokane
Nov 4 to 19, 2011
The Studio at Vertigo Theatre Centre
Listen to my live review of A Behanding in Spokane on CBC Radio’s Eyeopener on Monday, November 7th at 8:20 am
They say there are 3 types of characters in a Martin McDonagh play – The harmfully wicked, the wickedly foolish and the foolishly clueless. And while A Behanding in Spokane does nothing to expand on this expected repertoire of personality types or their darkly comedic, politically incorrect and violently absurd interactions with one another, the play does deliver the purely twisted enjoyment that comes from seeing a McDonagh piece. It’s an acquired taste that isn’t for everyone, but for those that like it, this show will not disappoint.
The story revolves around a seedy man by the name of Carmichael who is looking for his hand – literally. Seems that 27 years ago some neighbourhood bullies pinned his arm down on the tracks of an oncoming train that then cut his hand clean off. The bullies picked it up and took off, stopping to wave goodbye to Carmichael with his own hand as they ran away. Ever since then he has been on a quest to find the appendage, not because he thinks he can restore it, but just because it belongs to him. He’s even gone so far as to put ads in the paper offering a reward to anyone who can produce the hand. He’s been presented with many hands over the years, but so far none of them are his.
The play opens with Carmichael sitting in a rundown hotel room where two hapless drug dealing teenagers, Toby and Marilyn, are trying to sell him a bogus hand for $500. It doesn’t take Carmichael long to realize it isn’t his, and he is not happy about it. But before he can kill them both, Toby claims that they have the real hand back at their place. Through no help at all from Marilyn, but some lucky guesses from Toby about what the real hand looks like, Carmichael is convinced that maybe they really do have it. He handcuffs the pair to the hotel radiator, lights a candle in a gas tank that will explode if he isn’t back in 45 minutes and takes off to the house. The fourth and almost wild-card-like character in the play is Mervyn, the hotel receptionist, who keeps budding into the room and the storyline with a bizarre but hysterical naïve stream of consciousness (think Woody from Cheers but not quite as innocent).
McDonagh wrote this play after 911 and it has been suggested that it is an allegory about the US’s quest for vengeance after the attack and their hopeless effort to regain something that is now gone. And sure, you can look at the play through those lenses. But I dare you to do it in real-time for there’s nothing intellectually meaningful or moving on this stage. Instead what we get is deep dark humour and lots of it. The kind where the more gruesome or politically incorrect it gets, the funnier it is. Thankfully not funny just by virtue of shock value, although there is that too. But funny because of the intelligent writing that keeps these characters from descending into mere foul-mouthed, violent sound bites.
Each character at some point gets to move away from the demented action of the play and hold court with a monologue that slows the insanity of the story down somewhat and provides a more thoughtful type of comedic experience. Nowhere is this more enjoyable to watch than Mervyn’s solo scene about halfway into the play where, talking directly to and walking through the audience, he riffs on everything from getting drunk and watching animals in a zoo to lesbianism to school shootings. It’s a theatrical gem that is not only beautifully written, but also superbly acted by Ryan Luhning in a performance that steals the show. But believe me, with three other strong actors in the play, this was not an easy thing to do.
Julie Orton as Marilyn and Edward Ogum as Toby both deliver wonderfully inept characters that maintain the hysteria of the story without going unbelievably over the top. Their interaction as they bicker over everything from their predicament to their own relationship problems is perfectly timed and is responsible for many of the laughs from the audience.
Joel Cochrane as Carmichael quite obviously channels Christopher Walken (who played the role last year on Broadway) and gives us a very satisfying non-Walken – Walken-type performance. I suppose a case could be made that Cochrane was a bit too mimicky and not original enough, but regardless, his acting was solid and his performance the right balance between menacing and quirky.
So in summation, A Behanding in Spokane is full of severed hands,lots of racist/foul language, the imminent threat of violence and perhaps somewhere in there an important metaphor about how we live in a post terrorist attack world. But if you’ve acquired the taste for McDonagh you’ll find yourself laughing loudly at all of it.
For the guys – The men in this play are the perfect dark horse anti-archetypes. They are for sure funnier than the heroes and villains you are used to seeing. SEE IT
For the girls – Ask yourself, do you like sick and twisted humour that doesn’t shy away from violence? MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Like I said, it’s an acquired taste. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkies – Classic McDonagh in an American setting. The Walken-like performance may seem too evocative but get over it and just enjoy. SEE IT