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Comic Horror Fills Signature’s ARK

"The Lieutenant of Inishmore" is a bloody Irish romp.

Murder and mayhem, blood and gore have rarely been as uproariously funny as they seem for nearly two hours as the darkest of dark comedies "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" plays out in the ARK, the smaller of Signature’s two theaters in Shirlington.

The play had its Broadway debut two years ago and garnered five Tony Award nominations. It was the fourth play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh to reach Broadway with each being nominated for the Tony’s Best Play award. None of the previous ones, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane, "The Lonesome West" or "The Pillowman" prepared audiences for the flood of gore, or for that matter, for the number of laughs that "Inishmore" provides.

The program notes point out that McDonagh "prides himself on being able to shock an audience into laughing at almost anything." Here he’s put himself to the test and passes with flying colors as he forces the audience to react with escalating mirth over ever increasing mayhem – a reaction that might cause you to be just a bit embarrassed if it weren’t for the fact that the twists and turns are so outlandishly funny.

It would be different if any of the horrific atrocities committed in the name of mirth were actually meant to be taken seriously. After all, from toenail-ectomy to dismemberment, such things aren’t often viewed lightly. But here it is not so much the bloody excess but the characters’ blithe acceptance of that excess as normal that is being lampooned. Ireland has a much too long history of violence in the name of political and social causes and McDonagh laments that in a lampoon.

Director Jeremy Skidmore fields a fine cast of performers, many of whom have demonstrated the ability to deliver dialogue in distinctive American accents but few who have been notable with thick Irish brogues. With the contribution of "dialect director" Leigh Wilson Smiley, the entire ensemble manages to sound authentically Irish while, at the same time, being understandable to American ears. You may not catch every word, but you won’t miss the meaning of any bizarre plot point or outlandish remark.

Matthew McGoin kicks off the odd events as an Irish lad proud of his lengthy red locks who fears he may be blamed for the death of the pet cat of a bloodthirsty terrorist with awful results. Kurt Miller is that terrorist who takes pride in his ability to use pain and suffering to inspire horror and fear. His only soft spot is his affection for his cat – at least it is until he teams up with a pretty tomboyish lassie (Casie Platt) who can match him victim by victim.

Jason Stiles has what must be one of the most uncomfortable of all stage roles for he plays practically his entire single scene suspended by his feet, swinging back and forth as a torturee while Miller as the torturer alternately explains how much worse his treatment could be and reacts to the news (via cell phone – can no activity not be interrupted by the insistent call of a ring tone nowadays?) of his cat’s misfortune.

That scene is just the second in what becomes a one-act evening with the mayhem and gore increasing with each of eight scenes. With Stiles’ toenails and nipples forfeit to the cause that early in the play, you can imagine just what lies ahead for the remaining hour.

<b>Cabaret Provides Show Music</b>

Signature puts its two theaters to good use even when they don’t have a show up and running in one or the other. The ARK, where "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" is now playing , was the scene of the first of a new season of cabaret performances before they began installing the set for the Irish gore-fest. Filling the black-box theater with tables and a small raised stage, the series lets some of Signature’s frequent cast members and some famous guests hold forth in a more intimate style while audience members are invited to bring in snacks and drinks they can buy at the bar in the lobby. Tickets are $30.

In early September the program featured regulars Eleasha Gamble and Will Garshore along with new names Jobari Parker-Namdar and Kimberly Sherbach in a selection of "The Lost Songs of Broadway" from the 1940s. While many of the numbers deserve to be forgotten, a few stood out as solid examples of a time when show music and popular music were one and the same: songs "St. Louis Woman," "Panama Hattie" and "One Touch of Venus" were delights although just why "That’s Him" from that last show was offered rather than "Speak Low When You Speak Love" is not at all clear.

In December there will be a holiday program while the new year will bring cabarets featuring the works of specific composers whose shows have played Signature. In March it will be Michael John LaChiusa’s songs as sort of a teaser since two of his musicals will open shortly after that cabaret, his off-Broadway success "See What I Wanna See" and the premiere of his new work, "Giant." Finally, in June, Matt Conner, the composer of the Edgar Allen Poe musical "Nevermore" uses the cabaret series to introduce his newest work, a song cycle titled "Partial Eclipse."

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region ( HYPERLINK "http://www.PotomacStages.com" www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.</i>