If you’re looking for a hot, steaming bowl of Irish dysfunction to warm up your St. Patrick’s Day festivities, head on over to the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio to see Frank Theatre’s By the Bog of Cats , by Irish playwright Marina Carr. There you’ll meet Hester Swane, the scorned and seething center of a play that aspires to Shakespearean heights of familial wickedness.
If you’ve ever had one of those psycho girlfriends who gets her claws so deep into you that you
can’t escape without getting your eyes scratched out, you can begin to appreciate the storm of psychic mayhem that is Hester Swane. Now imagine that girl as a spurned cougar with a fondness for knives. You get the idea. Add to that the pre-play press indicating that the play is a “loose re-telling of Euripides’s Medea,” and you can pretty much guess that things are going to end badly. And if you didn’t pick up on the vibe of impending doom by the time the curtain goes up, there’s a handy ghost in the first scene to inform you that Hester is going to die by sundown. The only questions are how, and how many people she's going to take with her?
In many respects, By the Bog of Cats is a by-the-numbers tale of a woman who shacked up with a younger lover, had a child by him, and is subsequently dumped for a younger woman. What raises it above the level of a Lifetime melodrama is Marina Carr’s exquisitely lyrical writing and some superb acting by Virginia Burke as the hellion Hester, and Annie Enneking as Catwoman, a blind gypsy who lives by the bog, eats mice, and communes with ghosts. (No one eats mice in a Lifetime movie.)
Listening to Irish people argue is one of the great joys of theater, of course, and that’s an area in which this play does not disappoint. Hester spews streams of gorgeous invective at just about everyone she encounters, and the gift is returned in kind by the folks upon whom her scorn is heaped. Most of Hester’s personal history is revealed in these poetic tirades, which build, crackle and subside along with each shovelful of indignity that Hester must endure. She brings most of it on herself, though, so she’s a difficult character to sympathize with, but Virginia Burke gives Hester enough heart that you can feel her pain, and Annie Enneking’s Catwoman provides enough laughs to keep the play from getting too mired in melancholy.
There’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of Hester’s drama as well, most of it having to do with the culture clash between Ireland’s rural farmers—the ones who own the land and aspire to middle-class civility—and the gypsy class of squatters who have little or no money and survive by trading their dignity for survival.
If you go, hoist a pint before you head into the theater and settle in for some serious tragedy. It’s no fun to live on the edge of nowhere with practically nothing, but if that’s all you’ve got, and someone is trying to take it away, anyone could become Hester Swayne. Anyone, that is, who stopped taking their meds, was a single mother, drank like a pirate, had an Irish temper, access to very sharp cutlery, and the homicidal inclination to use it.
By the Bog of Cats continues at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio through April 5, guthrietheater.org