THEATER | Irish intoxication: Frank Theatre’s “By the Bog of Cats” at the Guthrie

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“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This is especially true if the scorned woman happens to be a whiskey-drinking Irish hellcat. Such is true in Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, currently being staged by Frank Theatre Company at the Guthrie. The play is a loose adaptation of the Greek tragedy Medea, transferred to the peat bogs of Ireland where Gypsy-descended tinkers take the place of Euripides’s hated barbarians.

The hellcat in question is Hester Swane, played stunningly by Virginia Burke. Hester’s man Carthage Killbride (John Catron) is leaving her for the younger, more “well-bred” Caroline Cassidy (Anika Solveig). The Cassidy family wants to banish Hester from the land to pave the way for the new couple’s future, but there is also a long history of deceit and murder in the region that leaves everyone’s motives suspect. Woven throughout the plot are ghosts, mythology, and a quick Irish wit that bites as much as it tickles.

by the bog of cats, a play written by marina carr and directed by wendy knox. presented by frank theatre through april 5 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($18-$34) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

From beginning to end it’s consistently difficult to tear one’s eyes away from Burke’s portrayal of Hester’s struggle, especially towards the latter half of the show when Jeff Bartlett’s masterful lighting illuminates her visage like a demon possessed. Whether threatening to kill her errant lover or tenderly interacting with her daughter Josie (Izzie Rousmaniere), Burke is completely enveloped in her character. While the drama’s other roles are somewhat less intense, the actors who shone the brightest are a trio of three supporting actresses. Melissa Hart completely dominates the role of the utterly self-possessed Mrs. Cassidy. Annie Enneking’s Catwoman is as hilarious as her mouse-eating is gruesome, and Cheryl Willis is fantastically understated as a sometime friend and confidant to Hester. Each actor also has a spot-on Midlands Irish accent, thanks to dialect coach Patrick Bailey.

While most know the ancient tragedy of Medea, Carr has fleshed out the story with a great deal more complexity. Hester’s own issues with her disappeared mother are paralleled by her relationship with her daughter, and a bizarre series of murders and ghosts throw curveballs into the mix. Perhaps most provocatively, not a single one of the characters appears to be consistently trustworthy—even the supposed protagonist, Hester. The result is an intoxicating journey whose mysteries unroll into other mysteries, always keeping the audience guessing and never giving them an easy allegiance among the characters. The tragic end is one that anyone who is familiar with Irish familial disputes can see coming, but it’s completely gut-wrenching in its absoluteness. In the end, Bog of Cats ends up being a first-rate downer—but one that touches the soul.

Jon Behm (jonbehm@gmail.com) is a Minneapolis-based photographer and writer. While his specialty is music, Jon has a wide variety of interests that tend to take him all over the Twin Cities on a daily basis.

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