Pictured: Jaimelyn Gray. Photo by Photo by Dave Markowski.
Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (English Translation) at Bluebird Arts
By Bec Willet
I’m impressed. Bluebird Arts is the only theater company in Chicago dedicated to producing consecutive productions in English and Russian. What makes this more impressive is that even with such an intensive undertaking, their work is good. Bluebird Arts’ latest production of Martin McDonagh’s THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE – which is to follow in May in Russian – is currently playing at the Athenaeum.
Focusing on the cycle of abuse, McDonagh’s dark comedy centers on the relationship between a mentally unstable mother and daughter living in rural Ireland. Reminiscent of Sartre’s NO EXIT, they create a hell for each other through their emotional obligation to live together. The reprieve from their fighting and manipulation comes in the form of two local men, brothers Pato and Ray. The scenes with these men act as relief from their cyclical arguments and the benchmark by which we assess the growing level of dysfunction in the women’s relationship.
The technical and emotional rigor required by McDonagh’s script is a challenge for any actor. While all of these actors were able to mostly manage this challenge, two of them excelled. Jaimelyn Gray embodied the bristly Maureen, with just the right concoction of malice and desperate loneliness to ensure we both hated and empathized with her. As Ray, Connor Baty, with his impeccable Irish dialect was the epitome of a young Irish working class man of the 1990s. In spite of some less than masterful dialect work, John Wehrman’s charming Pato still wins us over with a naïve but generous spirit.
As evidenced by these performances, director Luda Lopatina Solomon’s expertise as an international acting teacher was clearly an asset to this production, providing a strong core to the production. However, other aspects of the direction, particularly the shape of the narrative and some technical aspects, would have benefitted from a more considered approach. Some of the transitions were a little too long, and while much of the blocking felt natural, there were a number of points at which it seemed forced, unaligned with the characters motivations and the realist style.
The design experienced a similar issue. Even though the individual components of the design elements were mostly well-executed they never quite worked together in a cohesive vision to support the story. The design that most clearly and deliberately supported the play was the props. Meeting the many specific requirements of this text such as food, period set dressing, and even a towel with a saying hand sewn onto it, designer Ioana Manuela Rentea should be commended for her attention to detail.
Even with the lack of clarity in some areas, the strength of performances in Bluebird Arts’ THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE makes for an engaging and humorous evening that should not be missed. And if you do? Don’t worry. If you’re lucky enough to be a Russian speaker you only have to wait until May.
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (English Translation) runs through March 25th. For more information visit bluebirdarts.org.