Much like a chrysalis, the stage of Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater is undergoing a living transformation as the company of actors put together by director Stephen Hamilton embody their roles in the Martin McDonagh play “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” which opens for a very limited run on Wednesday.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” is set on the island of Inishmaan off of Ireland in 1934. To call it a dark comedy is putting it mildly. There is no political correctness or politeness on Inishmaan. There is, instead, constant cruelty and occasional compassion, both of which are directed at the title character, Cripple Billy, played by Christopher Imbrosciano.
While this might not sound funny, in the hands of a brilliant writer like Mr. McDonagh it is hilarious.
“They’re cruel, yes,” Mr. Hamilton said on Sunday, just before he went into rehearsal. “There is also a deep love and affection. Cruelty and violence run through McDonagh’s work, the essence of black comedy, the heights or the depths,” he said.
On Saturday, 11 days into the rehearsal process, Mr. Hamilton gave the actors a goal: find the key words in the other characters’ lines that compelled their character to speak or act.
He told the actors that he didn’t want them to worry about pacing or speed at that rehearsal. “Start to feel the real music and the cadence that is built into this play. You may find new colors. There may be a lot of surprises,” he told the cast.
At the top of the show, a shopkeeper, Eileen, played by Kristen Lowman, is stocking the barren shelves of a grocery store, as her sister Kate, played by Janet Sarno, enters.
“Is Billy not yet home?” Kate asks.
“Not yet is Billy home,” Eileen answers. The same five words, slightly rearranged.
Right from the start, Mr. McDonagh has transported the players, and the audience, to an austere yet lyrical and poetic world.
As the actors prepare, the stage itself will undergo a metamorphosis from a traditional proscenium theater stage into a theater within a theater, a black box, with the audience seated around the playing area, upon the stage itself.
Mr. Hamilton also utilized the black box concept last year at the John Drew in Anton Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” “No stars, no names,” he said. “Bringing the audience onstage, so close, breathing the same breath” as the players.
The black box setting, as constructed at the John Drew, puts the audience into an intimate space with the players sometimes an arms-length away.
It offers another unique advantage to such a production: by restricting the number of potential seats per performance, it allows the company to cast members of Actors’ Equity Association, the professional actors union, at an affordable scale through an agreement with the union.
The borders of the playing area during rehearsal were lined with spike mark tape, quarter inch thick strips of red tape that show the actors the shape of their playing space before it is actually constructed.
Keeping the props in place and the set properly set during rehearsal is the job of the production’s stage manager, Morgan Vaughan, and assistant director, Dominick DeGaetano.
Ms. Vaughan, who recently appeared as Lady Macbeth at LTV Theater, takes on the role of stage manager with gusto, part of a theatrical tradition in which actors know both the onstage and offstage functions in theater.
It is the stage manager’s responsibility to keep the show moving, to call the light and sound cues, and, of course, to say those words that have a magical effect on theater folk, “Places, please, for the start of act one.”
The decision to choose this particular play of Mr. McDonagh’s as opposed to another, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” was a tough one for Mr. Hamilton and the play’s producer, Ellen Meyers.
Ms. Meyers was a student of Mr. Hamilton’s and took on the challenging role of producer for last year’s production of “Uncle Vanya.”
“In the end, Steve really wanted to do it,” she said on Saturday of “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”
Ironically, Ms. Meyers is very familiar with the island of Inishmaan, having taken a three-week writer’s course there. “It is the wildest part of Ireland,” she said, adding that the residents still speak Celtic amongst themselves. It was the only time the worldly Ms. Meyers has ever been in a place where, despite English being the spoken language, she frequently could not understand what people around her were saying, as they would go back and forth between thickly accented English and Celt.
Once the decision was made to do “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” the process of casting the show began.
There were some actors whose work was familiar to Mr. Hamilton, whom he felt would fit specific parts very well.
Tuck Milligan, a seasoned actor both on camera and onstage, is one such actor.
Even before rehearsal began on Saturday, it was clear that Mr. Milligan had fully embraced the language.
“He’s as ugly as a brick of baked shite,” he says, laughing before rehearsal. It is his character’s description of a Hollywood actor coming with a movie crew to a neighboring island.
Mr. Milligan first worked with Mr. Hamilton when both were appearing at the John Drew Theater in Guild Hall’s 2010 production of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.”
Ms. Sarno appeared in the Guild Hall production of “Uncle Vanya” last year. “That experience was special,” she said. “Steve called me and asked me if I’d be in this production,” Ms. Sarno said on Saturday.
But not every part could be filled with actors whose work Mr. Hamilton knew.
Cripple Billy was such a part.
In this case, life was mimicking art.
In the play, Billy finds himself in Hollywood, being considered for the part of a handicapped boy in a motion picture. The Hollywood studio producers have to make a decision: do they cast Cripple Billy to play the part or do they use an actor who is not handicapped?
“My concern was that I would have to make that [same] choice. I didn’t want to be put in that position. Then Chris showed up. Chris came in and blew my socks off. In essence, what I was afraid of never happened. The choice was made for me,” Mr. Hamilton said on Sunday.
Christopher Imbrosciano had wanted to play the part ever since he first read the play.
“My friend told me ‘They’re doing it in East Hampton. You need to be seen,’ ” Mr. Imbrosciano said Saturday, taking a brief break from rehearsal. After hearing about the casting call, he made the trip to East Hampton and eventually got the part.
The play has always had a special meaning to Mr. Imbrosciano. “I have cerebral palsy,” he said matter-of-factly, sitting in the hallway outside the greenroom at the John Drew. He has needed over 25 surgeries in order to simply walk.
“Steve is fantastic. I trust him wholeheartedly. He loves this play as much as I do. His passion is palpable,” Mr. Imbrosciano said.
He discussed how the company has come together. “We had our first read-through. Then we all started to connect. You luck out when you work with such talented people,” he said.
This is probably the smallest black box I’ve worked in. You don’t realize how close they are until they are there. They are along for the ride. The audience is the final collaboration. After all, who else are you doing it for?”
Also in the cast are Joe Pallister, Georgia Warner, Tom Gustin, Margaret Dawson, and Evan Daves.
It will run from Wednesday through June 9, playing Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.