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Staging Carnage at the WaterTower Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 14 Jan 2011 7:11 AM

Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic plays, notably ‘The Pillowman’ and ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore,’ have required a new level of graphic violence when it comes to stagecraft, demanding cinematic-quality special effects. Which is why WaterTower Theatre hired an expert in bloody mayhem for its production of ‘Inishmore.’


Tony Daussat, Matt Moore and Jason Kane discover a novel form of Russian roulette

Steve Tolin is an award-winning special effects artist from Pittsburgh. Addison’s WaterTower Theatre called him in for its current production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that’s because the violent play requires an expert in carnage.

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[a montage of audio clips, beginning with the sound of sawing]

That’s Steve Tolin sawing an arm. It’s actually a fake arm with a steel pipe inside. But that makes it sound more like bone being cut.


That’s Tolin firing a .38 caliber revolver. The gunshot actually is used to mask the hissing of this –


Which is fake blood splattering on a wall from a gunshot. The fake blood is fired by pressurized air – hence, the hissing noise.

In addition to molding fake body parts and training the show’s cast in how to use their weapons and pneumatic rigs, Tolin mixes up the blood. And the brains.

Tolin: “That’s just cotton. Yep, cotton balls, dipped in corn syrup blood. Real disgusting.”

WaterTower Theatre hired Tolin for Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, because of the play’s technical demands. Inishmore is set in Ireland in 1993 when splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army were shooting each other more than they were the British.  In the play, we witness four shooting deaths, the killing of a cat, multiple dismemberments and the passionate murder of a cell phone. In McDonagh’s satire of modern life with terrorism, much of the bloodshed is actually triggered – by the loss of a cat.

“It’s like Oscar Wilde on crack.”

Terry Martin is the director of Inishmore. He believes that McDonagh’s wicked humor and crisp style make him more than just a purveyor of shock and gore.

Martin: “He writes with such wit and such finesse, but the contrast with what he’s writing about in terms of the grit and the violence is what makes him unique and interesting.”

Theaters have used fake bloodsplatter techniques since at least the time of William Shakespeare. These days, stage combat experts make much of their livelihood just from Shakespeare’s plays because of their many swordfights.

Matt Moore and Kayla Carlyle: You blinked. No, you blinked.

McDonagh is doing much the same for special effects artists. The graphic violence in his plays has upped the need for cinematic-quality stagecraft.

So Terry Martin sought out Tolin.

Martin: “I didn’t want us swimming around in blood – metaphorically and literally – trying to figure out how to get this done and get it right.”

This is the 14th production of Inishmore Tolin has done (below, he mixes some stage blood).  He’s also worked on a production of McDonagh’s play The Pillowman. That means the lion’s share of Tolin’s stage business the past four years has been provided by just one Anglo-Irish playwright.

Tolin: “Martin McDonagh has been able to affect my life in a way that he never would have suspected. He’s really created a staple for me, you know, a name for myself in the theater community as an expert of these kinds of special effects.”

McDonagh’s work has earned him four Tony Award nominations for best play. But Terry Martin hopes it’s the movie-style effects McDonagh’s work demands that will draw an audience beyond the usual theatergoers.

Martin: “As a theater producer, that’s very exciting to me because I think it’s an opportunity for a lot of young people in particular or people who are attracted to film to come in and experience what theater can actually do and actually be and not think that it’s this old-school thing that they’re not going to be interested in. And that’s just the businessman in me. But as an artist, I’m really intrigued by the fact that there is someone like him that’s pushing our art form to a new level.”

Unfortunately, even a big-budget special-effects Hollywood film can stumble if the actors are unconvincing. We have to fear that there’s something really at risk, that all of the blazing away of guns and the spurting of blood mean something more than just smoke and noise, that the men and women behind the guns and blood mean business. In the WaterTower Theatre’s Inishmore, Matt Moore plays Padraic, a sociopathic pseudo-revolutionary. It’s his hair-trigger rage and intense bond with his childhood chum, the cat Wee Thomas, that set up the entire story and its several plot reversals. While Moore may swagger and shout,,  he couldn’t scare a kitten. With him, the tension and the sudden gut-kick of McDonagh’s anarchic violence often . . .  leak away.

That tension fuels much of the humor as well; it’s supposed to provide comic relief from tension, after all. But the pacing of this Inishmore goes slack too often in the first half (it picks up in the second). It should feel hard and fast and mean, just like Padraic’s manic dedication to the cause, a manic dedication that clashes with the drinking,  complaining and genial ineptitude of Padraic’s pa (Jason Kane) and neighbor (Tony Daussat). They’re the play’s low-life Laurel and Hardy, the comic survivors ultimately unscarred by all the futile revolutionary uproar around them. Kane is one of the best things in the show, a blinking-eyed, cowardly bear roused from hibernation. But Daussat is soft and unfocused in his accent and approach. We’re never quite sure how dim-witted or gay his Davey actually is.

The show’s other strengths include Clay Yocum as the thuggish, one-eyed Christy (he has the heft and menace that Moore lacks) and, at the other end of the gun-packing spectrum, Evan Fuller does a nice turn as the more fastidious of the hitmen. Inishmore is also another terrific-looking WaterTower production, thanks to Christopher Pickart’s crisp set design (despite its opening-night chain-gear troubles) and thanks, yes, to Tolin’s explosive blood sprays.