By Wesley James
Artistic Home’s By the Bog of Cats is a solid, stirring production of a deeply flawed and obstacle-strewn script. In many ways this makes the production more impressive: evidently strong direction and clear performance choices help push cleanly through the spots where the play drags. As a play, however, some flaws are insurmountable; the really enjoyable parts of this play (to be fair, there are many) are even still oddly paced and too far apart.
Bog of Cats centers around Hester Swain (Kristin Collins), an unwed and unstable mother who fears she will lose her daughter Josie (Elise Wolf) when Josie’s father Carthage (Tim Musachio) marries Caroline Cassidy (Kelsey Phillips) of the wealthy Cassidy family. The play takes place over the course of the wedding day, as Hester grows more and more erratic, committing everything in her power to restore the family she used to have. A host of other characters exist in a swirl of advice, caution, opposition, and mysticism while the people in the center of the conflict tend to interact surprisingly positively, almost getting along – the play thrives in these spots where the bullshit falls away and the characters say what they mean and what they want.
There’s a structure to Irish theater that this play adheres to well: beauty in poetry, comedy in tragedy, life going on even as it goes downhill. For such a dour setting, Bog of Cats tends to excel in its bright or at least beautiful moments; it’s the too-frequent power shifts and ugly rehashings of exposition that set it back. Scenes where Hester nearly seduces her ex-lover, or has a drink with the busybody neighbor, or encourages her young daughter to makes bawdy jokes and do mean impersonations – these are human moments, fun and strong and memorable. Scenes where the wealthy Cassidy patriarch (Frank Nall) threatens Hester over and over (and gratuitously), a blind mystic acts like a cat, a dead brother subplot comes out of nowhere and contributes very little, even a well performed framing device with a sinister devil – unnecessary scenes and characters constantly exacerbate the run-time, skew the pacing, and distract from the core relationships. It’s disappointing not because this is a bad play, but because everything it needs to be a great play is already in it, simply marred by a lack of editing or restraint.
With a hard script commitment is key, and Artistic Home has done its work. This production seems generally aware of which parts need to be sped through, which ones to linger in – the performances are rock solid and appear to be based off of strong cast cohesion. There are a few large and one-off set pieces which I think tackle the oddity of the script well: a fire in a barn, a dining scene, both realistic and minimal so as to seem neither out of place nor wasted. If you’re in love with a flawed script, come to this show and learn how to circumvent a lot of inherent shortcomings, and how to showcase your talent despite those obstacles.
Reviewed by Wesley James.
By the Bog of Cats continues through March 26th at 1376 W. Grand Ave.