Theater Review: By the Bog of Cats

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Repetitive modern tragedy a difficult farewell for UCSB director
March 7, 2006 12:00 AM
“By the Bog of Cats” will probably go down in UCSB Theater Department history more as the last production from director Judith Olauson than for any merit of the play itself.
With 30 years of directing under her belt, Ms. Olauson has given Santa Barbara audiences some classic productions.
Even in this reviewer’s comparatively short eight years viewing UCSB Theater’s output, Ms. Olauson’s rèsumè contains good memories: her brilliant “A Raisin in the Sun,” the blood-spattered “Elektra” and the most recent “Translations.”
Ms. Olauson caught the Irish playwright bug some years back — she has directed Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” Sean O’Casey’s “The Shadow of a Gunman” and J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.”
However, playwright Marina Carr’s “By the Bog of Cats” at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre is by turns inexplicable, interminable and repetitive. During its 21/2-hour running time, there is much time to wonder why Ms. Olauson chose the play.


One possible reason is that Ms. Carr was in residence as a visiting artist for the week of the opening.
The other is the work’s allusions to Euripides’ “Medea.” Ms. Olauson is no stranger to Greek tragedy.
But if a character is warned at the beginning that she will die on the Bog of Cats, and that very same character announces soon after that she will die on the Bog of Cats and 21/2 hours later she does indeed die on the Bog of Cats, is this really tragedy or just a strange sort of tenacity?
That character is Hester Swane (Nancy Finn), a tinker and a gypsy who lives in a house by the Bog.
For 15 years she was married to Carthage Kilbride (Zach Appelman) and had a child by him, Josie (Jessie Sherman).
Both husband and wife improved each others’ lives in the limited world of their Irish village, but share a dark secret — they killed Hester’s younger brother Joseph, whose ghost (Brennan Kelleher) now haunts the bog and speaks to Hester.
But now Carthage wants to advance in the world. He left Hester some time ago and plans to marry Caroline (Amy Gumenick), the daughter of rich landowner Xavier Cassidy (Colin Deeb).
Carthage wants the land, the house and the daughter back from Hester.
Hester wants Carthage back, and if she can’t have him, she wants revenge.
She also intends to take the whole village down with her, because she knows all its secrets.
Hell hath no fury, indeed.
In Greek theater, all action (especially violence) happens offstage. In Ms. Carr’s update, all the plot happens before the play begins. We are instead left with pages and pages of threats, insults and yelling.
Lots of yelling.
American productions of Irish plays can so easily slip into complete blarney if a tight reign isn’t kept on the accents and the histrionics — which is why Ms. Olauson’s “Translations” was such a successful production.
But “By the Bog of Cats” starts off at a high pitch and has nowhere to go but up.
Ms. Carr wants us to sympathize with Hester, but as written and as played, the heroine comes across as unhinged, vindictive and delusional.
Tender moments, when they come (for her daughter, for her ex-husband in her weaker moments) play less as insights into a broken heart, and more like the cracking of a traumatized mind.
Not that the other villagers are any better — Josie’s grandmother is cruel and spiteful, Carthage is all bellowing and stomping, and Xavier is lecherous if not incestuous.
The only light spot is a turn by Will McFadden as Father Willow and by Katie Buoye as the Catwoman (the bog’s oracle of sorts).
Mr. McFadden is always reliable as a comic force, and in his brief time on stage, acts as a welcome salve to all the bluster that has come before.
Though playing “old and doddery,” his lilting accent pleases the ear and his bits of business with Ms. Buoye tempt the eye.
Tal Sanders provides another beautiful and ghostly set, a titled disc bisected by crossroads and dotted with mysterious, bubbling pits emanating peat smoke and, later, the bodies of the dead.
Aided by Vickie J. Scott’s lighting design, the set links the world of the ancient tragedy with the modern, and makes Ms. Carr’s intents apparent.
Sad to think that this will be the last collaboration of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Olauson — the masterful set for “Elektra” was a pure meeting of minds.
But as for the inhabitants of the village by the Bog of Cats, one is glad to be shot of the lot of them.

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