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An Irish Take on 'Medea' Makes For Powerful Drama In 'By The Bog of Cats'

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Audience identification is an interesting phenomenon. It's the fact that audiences will have sympathy for a possibly repellent character simply because he or she is the protagonist in a story—perhaps it's an artistic variant of Stockholm Syndrome? This explains the continual fascination with characters such as Richard III, Sweeney Todd and Medea. Speaking of the woman who never won the mother of the year award, Marina Carr's By The Bog of Cats is loosely inspired by the old Euripides play. It's not a perfect piece of writing—it could use some trimming and the first act is very exposition-heavy—but the L.A. premiere of the show by Theatre Banshee features a couple of superb performances and is ultimately quite powerful.

In present day Ireland, Hester (Kacey Camp) lives in a caravan next to her beloved Bog of Cats. She's having a bad day, capping off a hard and sad life, beginning with a strange man mistaking her for a ghost, who apologizes for showing up at dawn when it should have been dusk. Her favorite swan died during the previous night, but worse than that, today is the day her ex-husband Carthage (Joseph Patrick O'Malley) is marrying young Caroline (Erin Barnes). Not only is that happening, with a concurrent question of who will take custody of Hester's daughter Josie (Talyan Wright), but also she's being kicked off of her land by the new landowner, Caroline's father Xavier (Barry Lynch). Local crazy woman/sage The Catwoman (Casey Kramer) advises Hester that all will be well if she just leaves, but Hester is stubborn and angry and dusk is on its inexorable way.

Camp is magnificent as Hester, a woman who's both victim and victimizer, and she's effective in both moments of toughness and vulnerability. The most memorable part of her performance, however, is the heartrending scream she lets loose in the play's conclusion, all of Hester's pain combined in an endless second that jolts the audience like an unexpected electric charge. O'Malley is quite good as the frustrated Carthage, his rage spilling out helplessly, and Barnes is sympathetic as Caroline, who quickly realizes she's in way over her head in this tragedy. Rebecca Wackler steals the show with a hilarious portrayal of awful grandmother Mrs. Kilbride (Bonnie Snyder alternates in the role), happy to remind Josie that she's a bastard and showing up to her son's wedding in a white outfit complete with veil. Kramer has fun with her role as Catwoman, lapping wine from a saucer and hissing when displeased, and Lynch is entertaining as Xavier, who underestimates Hester along with everyone else. Wright is fine overall as Josie, but she shines at the play's end, nailing her last line and questioning look at her mother, communicating a terrible confusion that cuts right to the heart.

Sean Branney stages and paces the show well, but I wish the set design (credited to Arthur MacBride) was a bit less stark--that white backdrop might have benefited from a projection or two. Michéle Young's costume design is mostly realistic, but she got quite creative and detailed on the Catwoman costume, a multilayered thing of shambling beauty, with pelts or tails proudly displayed on the back and little skulls fastened like jewelry to the lapels. One of the most interesting things to me about Carr's play is that although Medea is clearly the inspiration, Hester's motivations finally aren't the same as hers. Hester has done and does some terrible things, and her sad life doesn't excuse her actions, but Carr also brings in the Greek notion of inescapable fate. This combination of psychological drama and classicism makes for an intriguing play, and Theatre Banshee deserves thanks for bringing such a strong production of it to Los Angeles.

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"By The Bog of Cats" runs through Dec. 8 at Theatre Banshee. Tickets are available online.