By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr, directed by Wendy Knox. A Frank Theater production at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio. There are three more performances remaining: Friday (4/3) and Saturday (4/4) at 7:30 pm and Sunday (4/5) at 1:00 pm.
Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno. A good woman, says the Roman poet Juvenal, is a rare bird, like a black swan.
As Marina Carr’s play By the Bog of Cats opens, Hester Swane is dragging the corpse of a black swan across the snow-covered stage, leaving behind a trail of blood. Hetty isn’t quite the rare bird Juvenal had in mind. She’s strong, passionate, tenacious, and she has a streak of terrible darkness in her. She’s a tinker—a gypsy—who grew up in a caravan beside the Bog of Cats in rural Ireland, abandoned there by her mother at the age of seven and waiting there ever since for her mother’s return. In that time she’s had an illegitimate child, a daughter named Josie, by Carthage Kilbride, a farmer who has left her for the daughter of a local landowner. Those attuned to classical resonances will realize that this is an Irish adaptation of the Medea, Euripides’ tragedy of a woman scorned and driven to unspeakable violence.
The play is haunted with ghosts and framed with the mythic presence of the black swan. In Irish myth, the children of Lir—King Lear—are transformed into swans by a wicked stepmother who lacks the stomach to kill them outright. That mythical atmosphere hangs over the play, but the heart of the drama lies in the real—though often outsized—human passions and motivations of the characters. Virginia Burke is riveting and terrifying as Hester, with her sharp-tongued and nearly pitch-perfect Irish accent, her human tenderness rubbed raw and inflamed into a terrible rage by the wrongs she has suffered in life. Hester’s disappointments, and Carr’s exploration of the damaged human relationships around her, make the tragic outcome much more satisfying to a modern audience than the violent end of Euripides’ Medea. Pity and fear, Aristotle tells us, are at the heart of tragedy—it is our ability to identify with the sufferings of the characters that makes tragedy effective. It’s difficult, in the end, to identify with Medea, but identification—Hester’s poignant identification with her daughter Josie—is what brings on the tragic denouement of Carr’s play. We may never be driven to such extremes, but we can understand the emotions and motivations in the play as outsize versions of our own—our love and hate, our fierce attachments and fears of abandonment.
For all its prevailing atmosphere of tragedy, By the Bog of Cats sparkles with sharp Irish wit. Much of the humor is supplied by Carthage Kilbride’s sharp-tongued monstrosity of a mother, marvelously played by Tony nominee Melissa Hart. And there’s the odd, soothsaying Cat Woman, who eats mice, laps up wine from a saucer, talks to ghosts, and sees the future—at least partially. Each of the characters is beautifully realized, but it’s Hester who consistently stands out. Virginia Burke gives an astounding performance.