Saturday, March 18, 2023

"By the Bog of Cats" by Theatre Pro Rata at the Crane Theater

Some people drink green beer, I celebrate St. Patrick's Day (and any other holiday, or just a regular day) by going to the theater. I had no idea how appropriate By the Bog of Cats would turn out to be as a St. Patty's Day observance. Written by Irish playwright Marina Carr, it's a tragically beautiful and beautifully tragic story in that specific Irish way (see also recent Oscar nominee The Banshees of Inisherin by another Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh). It's a great choice for Theatre Pro Rata, which has a penchant for making bold, interesting, unusual choices. With haunting live music, strong performances by the large and talented cast, and lovely design, it's an exploration of motherhood, grief, generational trauma, and what it means to be human. See it at the Crane Theater in Northeast Minneapolis weekends through April 2.

The play would succeed on its own, even without knowing that it's a loose adaptation of the myth of Medea. You remember Medea, the woman who killed her children after her husband left her for another woman. But the situation is a little more complicated than that, and this story plays out a little differently. The Medea character here is a woman named Hester Swane, whose pain at the loss of her mother when she was young haunts her relationship with her daughter, Josie, with her long-time love Carthage Kilbride. They never officially married, and now Carthage is set to marry Caroline Cassidy, the young daughter of a wealthy landowner, and hence inherit the land. Adding insult to injury, Carthage is kicking Hester and Josie out of their home, even though Hester long ago loaned Carthage the money to buy his first property. The entire community seems to be against Hester, whom they derisively refer to as a "tinker" (slang for Irish Traveller, similar to "gypsy"). Carthage tells Hester his life would be easier if she just left, leaving Josie for Caroline and him to raise. In other words, Hester is a woman in a desperate situation, with no allies, and no apparent way out of her predicament. Desperate people do desperate things.

mother and daughter (Emily Grodzik and Kayla Dvorak Feld)
(photo by Alex Wohlhueter)
Amber Bjork directs the piece, bringing that same hauntingly beautiful and thoughtfully executed quality to it that she brings to the original plays she's directed with Minnesota Fringe favorite The Winding Sheet Outfit. Emily Grodzik gives a fantastic performance in the complex role of Hester, tough and defensive, softening only with her beloved daughter, showing depths that make it impossible not to empathize with her. As Josie, Kayla Dvorak Feld is so believable as a precocious adorable 7-year-old in pigtails. She physically transforms into a fidgety restless child, constantly playing with her cat-doll and hopping around the stage. Other highlights in the cast include Raúl Arámbula as a darkly intense Carthage; Nissa Nordland Morgan as his childlike new bride Caroline, who is smarter than she seems; Sean Dillon as the cold and ambitious father of the bride; and Jean Wolff, a hoot as Carthage's meddling mother. The cast speaks in a charming Irish brogue, with help from dialect coach Keely Wolter. There's also a lovely use of music throughout, a repeated song about "The Bog of Cats," sung by Kayla and the ensemble, accompanied by fiddler Hawken Paul (who also makes a ghostly appearance in Act II).

photo by Alex Wohlhueter
The bog is a place haunted by ghosts and a mysterious "Catwoman" who may practice magic (played by Meri Golden). The bog is well represented in the Crane's spacious performance space by fog constantly rolling across the stage. Bare branches hang from the high ceiling, dry brush and tree trunks fill the stage, with a wall of Hester's house on one side, everything in shades of drab gray and brown. Characters are dressed in Irish jumpers and work pants, and some modestly fancy wedding attire. In another similarity to The Banshees of Inisherin, it feels like this could be taking place today or a hundred years ago in this place on the edge of civilization. (Set design by MJ Leffler, costume design by Mandi Johnson.)

Nary a cat appears in By the Bog of Cats. But what does make an appearance are real and flawed humans, complex relationships, desperate love, and inevitable tragedy. It's not a happy story, but it's a powerful one, and beautifully told.