Setting the Scene: Setting, Staging, and Visuals in UMF’s Production of The Cripple of Inishmaan

Despite my love for the written word, I am very much a visual person. I love novels and texts honestly, but I tend to find more enjoyment in seeing how they come to life whether that is in the realm of film or on stage. Last Saturday I had the immense pleasure of seeing Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan performed by UMF’s wonderful theater community. It was both delightful and heartbreaking, a true homage to the play itself. What stole my attention, however, was the beautiful set design.

As a brief sum up of The Cripple of Inishmaan, it is a play that focuses on a small Irish community. The people of Inishmaan have known each other their whole lives. You have the title character, Cripple Billy, a lad who upon finding out from the town gossiper about a film being produced in Ireland goes off in search of becoming a star. Although many of the characters are exasperated with Billy or have spent their lives making fun of him, he is what ties these characters together apart from their shared location. Throughout the course of the play deception takes place and secrets are revealed.

In the play text, McDonagh leaves much too directorial interpretation. He gives visual direction at the start of the scene, but that is mostly it. The play opens with the scene set as: “A small country shop on the island of Inishmaan circa 1934. Door in the right wall. Counter along back, behind which hang shelves of canned goods, mostly peas.” The directions go on to state that there is a door that leads offstage, but otherwise, no directions are given. In UMF’s production, these same ideas are in place, but it is the small details that entirely made the setting believable. The canned goods on the shelves were faded, as if they had to travel a great way to get there, as life would be in 1934. The black stove was old-fashioned and looked as if it had been in that home for years. Overall, the color pattern was muted, tones of tan and brown, creating the mood that the store was not just a place of work but also a home. This helped pulled the viewer into the nature of the play, making it feel as if we were a fly on the wall rather than the clear division of audience and actor.

Later on in the third scene, McDonagh gives even less of stage setting than before. Summed up in the line, “A shore at night. Babbybobby fixing his Curragh,” everything else is left to production variation. UMF’s version includes the use of a real boat, pulled on stage by the actor playing Babbybobby, as if he had just dragged it ashore. The boat is striking with its age, appearing weathered and colors faded. This visual adds to the believability of life in Ireland in the 1934. It would be likely that the boat had been passed down or purchased used, as something new would cost too much for a poverty-stricken community. With the combined set of rocks along the stage’s edge and the building out back with the large wooden door, it is easy to feel as if you are looking at place that time has stood still in.

Overall, the production was beautiful both in emotional and visual aspects. Through the combined efforts of lighting, musical touches and attention to detail, it is easy to believe that you as a viewer has stepped back in Ireland in the 1930’s, eager to see what small town life can offer.

Kate and Eileen – The Aunts of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan is a narrative about a small group of acquaintances on an even smaller Irish island. There’s Cripple Billy, his aunts Eileen and Kate, the town gossip-monger Johnnypateen, not-nice-girl Helen, and her foolish younger brother, Bartley. There’s also a doctor, a fisherman named Babbybobby, and Johnnypateen’s alcoholic mother. This cast represents a parade of disabilities—most of them not of the physical sort. To me, two of the most interesting characters are the aunts, who are undeniably good but nevertheless manifest a particular style of disability.

Billy was born with a physical disability. His body is weak and he walks funny. However, Billy is intelligent, shown reading more often than not, clever, and thoughtful. He becomes the bar by which the disabilities of the other characters are measured. Billy’s own differences become a scale on which to judge the deformities of the able-bodied characters.

Billy’s aunts open the play. They are quite elderly, but very sweet in that Irish grandmother sort of way. They are very fretful and compassionate towards Billy, concern which manifests as clinginess and ultimately irritates their little ward. These two also own the little town store, which becomes the locus of interaction where most of the show takes place. When they begin to worry, though, their comfortable shroud of fragile normality shows its cracks.

Early on, characters comment on Kate’s talking-to-rocks phase. When she gets nervous, it seems, her recourse is to lose touch with reality. She begins to talk to rocks. In the show we see her slip to this level in reaction to Billy’s disappearance. While she is in this state of mind, she is shown to be incredibly absent-minded (going into the back room to look for Bartley’s sweets, she returns a long time later having forgotten that he was even there) but nevertheless pleasant. In the UMF production of the show, the actress playing Kate spoke all of her dialogue during this time with a sweet, upward lilt that communicated harmlessness. It was actually quite close to distress.

Bartley also reveals for us the root of Kate’s collapse by explaining a conversation he had overheard, between Kate and her rock, where Kate asked the rock how Billy was doing in America. Compared to characters in the show whose drives were less pure, Kate appears to be a veritable beacon of loving tenderness encased in a timid mentality.

Aunt Eileen, though able to maintain her grasp on reality, shows her anxiety in other ways: namely, stress-eating. She lies to Bartley about what sweets they have at the store, and is then revealed to have eaten them all herself. She also displays irritability and a short temper, mostly aimed at her sister. The moment when the two clash (which is before Kate slips into full-on rock-mode) is an interesting moment in the play where the two accuse each other of their worst faults, then dissolve in how terribly they miss Billy.

Billy’s disabilities are entirely physical. Intellectually, he has a significant advantage over most of the rest of the cast. The other inhabitants of Inishmaan, such as Kate and Eileen, are explorations of this important idea: all disabilities are not physically, and physical disability is not everything.

Billy’s Monologue

Before attending the UMF’s production of Cripple of Inishmaan, I was rather curious as to how Billy’s monologue was going to be staged. After all, the monologue makes a rather complex scene. Upon the first time reading the script, the reader often believes that perhaps Billy is nearing the end of his life, but after reaching the big reveal, the reader realizes this scene merely depicts Billy practicing some lines for a screen-test. In a way, this monologue pokes fun a melodrama as Billy himself comments on the absurdity of having to sing “Croppy Boy” for the scene. Knowing the script inside and out, the director then has to make the difficult decision of either having the scene be completely serious, or perhaps hint to the audience that what is happening may not be what it appears to be.

The UMF production went with the serious interpretation of the scene, which proved to be quite moving and powerful. This was one of two scenes where the audience did not applaud at the end. The audience was too moved to clap after such a serious and upsetting scene. Deciding to make Billy’s monologue appear authentic and not just reciting a script made Billy’s return much more exciting for the unsuspecting audience members. Several gasps of genuine surprise were to be heard when Billy was revealed behind the projection screen.

The production’s actual set design of the monologue was also very interesting and powerful. The actor who portrayed Billy performed the monologue in a small space just above the actual stage. The physical separation of this space from the rest of the set shows Billy’s own distance from his home. The decor was much more scarce than in the script. There was really only a chair and a table compared to a whole hotel room’s worth of furniture. This small amount of furniture added a sort of starkness to the scene. The focus falls on Billy’s words and actions without the audience being overwhelmed by a whole new set of furniture and props.

Even though the monologue was very serious and powerful, there is one element in the set design that evokes the sense that not everything is as it seems. This element is how the small space has a sort of screen or glass wall. This glass wall, while meant for the safety of the actor, creates a separation between Billy and the audience. This separation, as well as the upward angle of the space, seems to mimic the sense of watching a film in a movie theatre. Even though this is very subtle, an audience member who may have some experience with the play might recognize from this staging that this monologue is not quite as it seems for a first time viewer.

The manifestation of the character Cripple Billy in “Cripple of Inishmaan.”

Going into the theatrical performance of Cripple of Inishmaan, I found myself wondering how they planned to stage a number of things. I’m not very good at coming up with staging ideas so I found myself at a loss for ideas on how to block more complex scenes, such as Billy’s monologue in the hotel room and when Babbybobby attacked Billy with the lead pipe, but one thing that I was really excited to see become realized was the actual manifestation of Billy’s ailments.

 

The play doesn’t give much detail about Billy’s physical deformities. It only mentions that he shuffles from place to place, leaving the play wide open for interpretation. I had no idea what to picture Billy like physically because there simply weren’t enough physical characteristics given to me so I was excited by the opportunity to see the play and experience someone else’s idea of what Billy moved like and how his body appeared.

 

In the theatrical version of the play, the first time we saw Billy, it was a bit of a shock. There was a rather startling thudding noise from offstage which the audience quickly learned was Cripple Billy. He limped heavily with one leg straight and one leg bent awkwardly, foot off to the side. The movement was labored and difficult to watch. One arm swung back and forth, as if to propel Billy forward, and one was tucked into a contorted sort of knot in his chest. The physical display was very present and imposing onstage, and it demanded attention. The actor playing Billy never faltered in his portrayal, staying committed to the appearance of physical deformity the entire time.

 

After the play I had a chance to talk to Jayne Decker and ask her how she worked with the actor who played Billy, Aaron Verrill, to create the look of disfigurement. She said they started simply by reviewing photos of different disfigurements, drawing much of their inspiration from cerebral palsy. The twisted and bent in arm was their starting point. Jayne asked if Aaron could maintain the arm and hand placement throughout the play and once he decided he could it became the centerpiece for the rest of the body.

 

Next, Aaron was given leg weights so he could practice walking with a heavy limp and drag. The leg weights were kept through practice to help Aaron learn to walk as though his legs were stunted or damaged in some way, though they were eventually removed and not present during the actual performances. The practice with the leg weights enabled Aaron to act as though he was moving with damaged legs.


After having seen the play and having seen someone else’s manifestation of Cripple Billy, I think I would have done something very similar. I just might have tried to add some kind of tick or twitch if possible to add to audience and character discomfort. There is little you can do to hinder an actor’s ability to move while also keeping them functional, especially since in this case Billy has to be able to shuffle and carry books among other things. Along with that, actor comfort is also a concern. If the person playing the character can’t maintain his posture it simply won’t work. I think Jayne had a great interpretation of Cripple Billy in her performance of Cripple of Inishmaan.

Temple by Kristen Case

The UMF community celebrated faculty who published books in 2013 and 2014 at a reception on March 10. Each faculty member’s book was introduced with remarks from another faculty member, a nice (and relatively new) UMF tradition. Several faculty members from the Humanities were on hand as authors, and we wanted to share some of the commentary on their books.

Kristen Case’s Temple was introduced by Shana Youngdahl:

Kristen Case is well-known to all of your for her outstanding achievements as a scholar, in fact you probably remember her being celebrated for that work at our last books celebration, but you might not know that Kristen is also a terrific poet, and her debut chapbook Temple attests to a voice engaged equally with ideas and the world of objects. Reading Temple, one can’t help but envision Kristen out in her Temple home, savoring the quiet of the predawn hours connecting the great ideas she investigates in her scholarship with the material world as it presents itself before her. In these poems children are sick from “too much yellow,” and the calm voice of the speaker responds to this with “the obvious question.”  There is never too much in these poems, they are like an unfolding paper chain whole in its own universe but growing in gravity as read in relation to one another. I hope you all get to know the poet Kristen Case by reading this lovely chapbook.

English Courses and CoLabs

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Studying Surrealism in ENG 370

Students in ENG 370 (The Splendid Drunken Twenties) are participating this semester in a new experiment at UMF, as they are part of what is called a CoLab—a group of classes in different disciplines connected by a common interest or topic. ENG 370 is part of a CoLab called Modernisms and Manifestos, with the different classes exploring the modernist movements that began early in the twentieth-century and looking for connections across different disciplines: literature, music, art.  Surrealism, a modernist movement that started in France in the 1920s and influenced art and culture throughout the twentieth-century, is one of the topics explored by all four classes involved in the CoLab.

One activity that the CoLab sponsored was a visit from Bowdoin College Museum of Art Assistant Curator, Andrea Rosen, who offered a workshop on using surrealist techniques to create art and literature, and who also offered a lecture on surrealist photography. The Farmington Flyer recently published an article on Rosen’s workshop and on the Modernisms and Manifestos CoLab.

A Brief Review of Shana Youngdahl’s Winter/Windows

It’s a lovely thing to have the opportunity to talk about Shana’s chapbook Winter/Windows, which is about many things, but perhaps most centrally about bats and little girls. I want to start by just reading the first page of the second poem in the chapbook “Windows,” which I think will be more than enough for you to realize you should go online immediately after this event and have one of these beautiful little books shipped to you from Belgium.

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The whole book is like this: lush, deft, gorgeously intelligent, unremittingly intimate. And that word, intimate, reminds me of the other thing I want to say, which is about chapbooks. Chapbooks originate in the early modern period and are a form of cheaply produced printed matter: they were sold by peddlers who traveled across England during a time when literacy was growing but bound books were still expensive. Chapbooks were and are brief, one signature, saddle-stich affairs with paper covers, relatively easy and inexpensive to make and to distribute. Chapbooks have had a bit of a resurgence in the world of contemporary poetry in recent years in part out of a desire to return to something like that alternative model of distribution and production: something more personal and less commercial than the trade presses can offer. I mention all that because if you read Winter/Windows —which, again, you should, as soon as possible—I think you’ll see immediately that these intimate sensibility of these poems is perfectly matched to the beautiful hand-stitched book in which they are published by the wonderful Éireann Lorsung, herself a poet, of MIEL books. If you order Shana’s book, you will receive it carefully wrapped in a beautiful package; it will take a little while, because it will come to you not from an Amazon distribution center but from a farmhouse in the Belgian countryside, and you will realize when you open it that you have received not a product but a gift. I’m enormously for grateful for the gift of Shana’s poems, and you will be, too.

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The UMF community celebrated faculty who published books in 2013 and 2014 at a reception on March 10. Each faculty member’s book was introduced with remarks from another faculty member, a nice (and relatively new) UMF tradition.

A Brief Review of Michael Johnson’s Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos

Michael Johnson’s book Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West examines representations of African American experience within, alongside, and against the tropes of the western frontier. If the terms “African American” and “Western” conjure little for us beyond Blazing Saddles, this reflects a kind of cultural erasure, since, as Michael writes in the introduction, “From the earliest incursions into the Americas by Spanish explorers to the California Gold Rush and the Oklahoma land rush, African Americans have been present at every frontier and have been active participants in transforming those frontier settlements into thriving communities.” Indeed, Derrida’s concept of writing-under-erasure, whereby meaning is both effaced and still present, is central to the book, a measure of its theoretical reach, which also encompasses the trickster archetype, and WEB Dubois’ formulation of double consciousness, concepts he uses to attend to a broad array of previously neglected material, including films, memoirs, and newspaper accounts. The result is a rich and meticulously researched look at a history that, though amply recorded in multiple genres, has been nevertheless rendered culturally all but invisible by the predominance of a whitewashed story of the “the West.” If in stressing the theoretical and methodological range of Michael’s book I have made it sound at all dry and scholastic, I want to close by saying that Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos is above all a great read—compellingly written and full terrific stories. Michael tells these stories, from those of important cultural figures like WC Handy to those of the now little-known newspaper writer Rose Gordon, with both sympathy and intelligence, and the result is a book that not only gives is a new picture of the American West but that also reminds one how much fun an academic book can be, a fact of which all of us surely could use reminding.

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The UMF community celebrated faculty who published books in 2013 and 2014 at a reception on March 10. Each faculty member’s book was introduced with remarks from another faculty member, a nice (and relatively new) UMF tradition.

Istrouma

The UMF community celebrated faculty who published books in 2013 and 2014 at a reception on March 10. Each faculty member’s book was introduced with remarks from another faculty member, a nice (and relatively new) UMF tradition. Several faculty members from the Humanities were on hand as authors, and we wanted to share some of the commentary on their books.

Clint Bruce, Istrouma, introduced by Linda Britt:

A translator lives between two worlds, and inhabits both.

Clint Bruce lives that creed perhaps better than anyone. His publications place him squarely in that context. He has an article forthcoming from Romance Notes, for example, on “Transatlantic Geographies”, and he has published on trans-francophonie, among his other work. He is a living, breathing ambassador for bi-lingualism (even tri-lingualism… his Spanish is excellent). One of his missions is to promote Francophone cultures; another is to raise awareness of the multiple cultures that make up the foundation of this country.

Istrouma came into being in part because of Clint’s encouragement and persistence as an editor, but mostly because of his commitment to the aforementioned mission. His translation of Istrouma is part of that mission, and a very challenging part at that. The subtlety of a good translation makes the translator invisible, but translation is the closest of reading, thus a more scholarly pursuit than most people realize. It is also editing. And it is creative writing. Istrouma is a Manifesto, described as “a broad history of indigenous America and of colonized peoples across the world that repeatedly returns its focus to the Houma people, native to Southeastern Louisiana.” But in addition to its essays on history, it includes commentary… and poetry! The challenges of elegantly translating these radically different passages (into his second language, in fact) are enormous, but he more than meets the challenges, and the result is a volume that promises “to stand as a major contribution to Louisiana studies.”

As he leaves us at the end of this year to pursue exciting projects elsewhere, I know that he will continue to make major contributions to Francophone studies, through translation and other pursuits. We are happy that our students and our community have been lucky enough to benefit from his commitment to UMF over the last two years. But now, please join me in congratulating Professor Clint Bruce on his beautiful translation, Istrouma.

 

The Last Ferryman

The UMF community celebrated faculty who published books in 2013 and 2014 at a reception on March 10. Each faculty member’s book was introduced with remarks from another faculty member, a nice (and relatively new) UMF tradition. Several faculty members from the Humanities were on hand as authors, and we wanted to share some of the commentary on their books.

Linda Britt, The Last Ferryman, introduced by Pat O’Donnell:

This last year Linda Britt was commissioned to write the book for an opera, “The Last Ferryman,” celebrating the anniversary of the Deer Isle Sedgewick bridge. The Grammy-Award winning Paul Sullivan was commissioned to write the music. Of “The Last Ferryman,” the Portland Press Herald says it “tells the bridge story with historical figures and fictional characters. It illuminates a key cultural moment for one of Maine’s loveliest islands, and does so within the framework of a fully staged musical that features a cast of New York actors and community members, a three-piece band anchored by Sullivan and choreography by the Portland-based dance artists Gwyneth Jones and Gretchen Berg . . . ‘The Last Ferryman’ captures the conflict inherent in progress of the Maine coast. It celebrates the aesthetic and architectural wonder of the bridge while giving poignant voice to what’s lost when an island attaches itself to the mainland and gives in to the headlong momentum of change.”

We all know Linda as our beloved chair of Humanities and Professor of Spanish. Some of us remember Linda writing poems and having them published in literary journals. Not many of us know that a book she translated by Costa Rican writing Carmen Naranjo, There Never Was a Once Upon a Time, was included in a list of “500 Great Books by Women.”

Some of us also have, over the years, enjoyed some of the plays and musicals she has written. These include “Let Me Count the Ways,” her divorce musical performed at the Community Little Theater in Auburn; “Thanksgiving,” a one-act play which received an award from the Theatre Association of New York State; the moving full-length play “Adoption Stories” performed by the Out of the Box Theater company in Lewiston; the ever-popular “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington,” a one-woman show about Margaret Chase Smith that is touring venues in Maine; the play “Aiken Pond” performed by the Out of the Box Company; and the devastating “What If,” performed at the Maine Playwrights Festival, at Out of the Box Theater, and the Community Little Theater. Her play “I Smile, Of Course, and Go On Drinking Tea,” will be previewed in a staged reading at UMF on April 10 before it goes to New York in June as part of the “Talent on Tap” program which brings playwrights to NYC to see their work performed.