Love betrayed, ghosts, curses, prophecies and an inevitable tragedy of mythic proportion fuel Theatre Banshee’s effective production — despite a technical snafu — of Marina Carr’s Irish play, “By the Bog of Cats,” a Los Angeles premiere at the Banshee in Burbank.
Rooted in Euripides’ “Medea” and transported to the humble confines of a peaty bog in contemporary Ireland, Carr’s play revolves around tormented Hester Swain, whose longtime lover, Carthage, the father of her child, has abandoned her to marry the daughter of a rich farmer.
A poor tinker descended from a line of witches, twisted by her idealized memories of the mother who neglected and abandoned her and, as it turns out, by a dark act in which Carthage (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) was complicit, Hester (stunning Kacey Camp) rages against the betrayal.
She refuses to be forced out of her home near the Bog of Cats to make room for her former lover and Caroline, the woman he is about to marry, despite rage and threats from both Carthage and Caroline’s cold-hearted father, Xavier (Barry Lynch).
She also refuses despite such omens of impending disaster as the death of a black swan — oddly tied to Hester’s life since her childhood — and visits from Death in the form of the Ghost Fancier (David Pavao), who numbers Hester’s own remaining hours, and from the Catwoman, a blind seer prophesying devastation and ruin to all unless Hester packs up and leaves that day.
Cleverly draped in costume designer Michéle Young’s voluminous rags with cat skull accouterments, Casey Kramer is a hoot as the Catwoman, a dotty harbinger of bad tidings. Despite her revelations of portent, the Catwoman, with her cat fetish persona, is among the play’s unexpected comic touches — even when memorably damning Hester’s denial of her own dark past with the observation that “most people manage to stay a step ahead of the pigsty truth of themselves.”
Adding expository but interesting layers of psychological motivation for Hester’s soon-to-come grisly embrace of her destiny, playwright Carr weaves in moments of compassion and empathy on the part of characters past and present. Joseph (Aiden Bristow), a gentle ghost of disturbing origin, acknowledges Hester’s pain. Caroline (gracefully realized by Erin Barnes), a far-from-self-satisfied bride, is conflicted by childhood memories of Hester’s care for her after her mother died. The Catwoman and harsh Xavier, too, it seems, played a part in Hester’s survival as the child of a mother who placed her newborn daughter in a swan’s nest to live or die.
Indeed, the theme of maternal betrayal is the unsubtle thread that runs throughout the script. Missing, neglectful and spiteful mothers shape each of the participants in this ill-fated love triangle: Hester, tormented by her obsessive need for the mother who left her; fragile Caroline whose mother “died to spite me,” says Xavier; and Carthage, burdened with his narcissistic mother Elsie Kilbride’s “bile and rage.”
Hester’s fierce love for her 7-year-old daughter and her memories of Caroline as a vulnerable child add shades of complexity to her desire to wreak vengeance, and in the case of the former, heightens the shock of the horrific act to come.
Ably directed by Sean Branney, the cast, led by Camp’s powerful, fully committed performance as Hester — the authenticity of her primal scream at the play’s end could haunt your dreams — is up for the play’s considerable challenges.
That includes 9-year-old Talyan Wright as Hester’s doomed daughter Josie. With an earnest, if occasionally elusive Irish accent, Wright holds her own as a believable innocent with love to spare, even for paternal grandmother Kilbride, who mixes sparse gestures of affection with harsh and petty reminders of the little girl’s bastardy.
(Bonnie Snyder’s performance as the awful grandmother is, memorably, both funny and disturbing. Rebecca Wackler alternates in the double-cast role.)
On the downside, Bosco Flanagan’s lighting design, presumably tailored to provide visual depth and enhance the play’s emotional resonance, was unavailable at the performance reviewed due to a computer meltdown. This in turn further flattened Arthur MacBride’s winter-bleak set — a leafless tree and shallowly tiered stage— leaving an expanse of blank white backdrop devoid of ambient shadows and lighting effects.
Where: The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia, Burbank.
When: 8 p.m. Friday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Dec. 8.
More info: (818) 846-5323, http://www.theatrebanshee.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.