By the Bog of Cats does what every Theatre Pro Rata production I’ve seen has done, surprised me in some way with a performance. In this production It was Emily Grodzik in the lead role of Hester Swane. If I’ve seen Ms. Grodzik before I don’t recall it, having seen her, I’m wondering why I haven’t seen her before, she is incredible. The play is an Irish take on the ancient Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides, but set in a more recent time period. While it isn’t slavishly faithful to the source material, it does maintain the tragedy aspects, and doesn’t end well for anyone. There are two warnings in the program, one is a content warning which states: This script is loosely based on Euripides’ classic tragedy of Medea. Hester’s story ends with infanticide and suicide, and there are descriptions of fratricide and other violence. You should heed this warning, if those are triggers for you, this might be a show to skip. The other warning is to alert the audience that water-based theatrical haze will be used throughout the performance. You can ignore that one, I was not at any point aware of any haze, though that would be a nice addition. If you are not triggered by the content issues or physically affected by non existent haze, I highly recommend By the Bog of Cats. It’s a powerful work that will wreck you in that meaningful way that good art can. *** UPDATE I’ve been informed that the production I attended the haze machine was not functioning, so there is a good chance there will eb haze when you attend in case you are sensitive to that. I’m assured that it is water based haze that is safe for the actors and audience members…and man am I bummed I missed the haze!
The play is written by Marina Carr and while its basis is from an ancient Greek tragedy, it’s really about the abandonment and the scars left upon the one left behind. Hester Swane was abandoned by her mother at the age of seven and it has had a tragic effect on her life. Everything that happens in the play, every action Hester takes and every secret that is revealed is a result of her mother leaving her as a child. When the play opens, Hester lives in a house by the Bog of Cats with her daughter Josie, but she is supposed to be packing to move so that Josie’s father Carthage can move in after his wedding that day to Caroline. Hester meets a Ghost Fancier who is there for her but realizes that he has arrived too early as she is still alive, for it’s dawn, not dusk. She is also informed by the blind woman known as Catwoman, who has visions and can speak to ghosts, that on the day she was born her mother laid her in a nest with a black swan and said that Hester will live until the day the black swan dies. She tells her this as Hester is digging a grave to bury the black swan, that died in the morning the same day. Hester’s fate has been prophesied but she will not go quietly into the night. She refuses to accept that Carthage has left her, she will not be left by anyone else, he is hers until she is done with him, she states. This sort of spiral from there, you probably already feel like you know too much, so I’m going to leave the plot there, you’ll find there are still many surprises in store.
So back to Emily Grodzik and her performance as Hester Swane. First off, is she Irish? Most of the performers attempted to add a bit of an Irish accent to their performances with varying degrees of success, most doing just fine. But Grodzik, nails it so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s an Irish immigrant, though I don’t think that’s the case. Accent aside she is simply mesmerizing. Her stage presence is off the charts as is her presence in the moment. Right from the beginning, when she is talking with Catwoman while digging the grave for the swan. As I think back on it, my memory is of her outdoors, actually digging in the dirt and talking to this woman whom she wants to leave her alone. She is physically and emotionally in the place and time that her character is in at every moment and that is what makes a performance feel authentic. Really most of the cast is very good. Raul Arambula as Carthage is excellent, he gets a very emotional scene at one point that just makes your heart ache for him. Meri Golden is the Catwoman and gives a very strong performance with a character that could easily be played simply for laughs, she hits those moments to be sure, but she also ground this modern day blind prophet in a reality. She also has a moment that rips your heart out at her howls of despair. Kayla Dvorak Feld has the unenviable task of being a woman in her 20’s I’m guessing, but having to play Josie, a child of seven. There’s no way that isn’t going to be a little annoying, seven is awfully young and childish and it’s to Feld’s credit that we can mostly tolerate Josie. Nissa Nordland Morgan plays Caroline in an unusually straight but sweet role for this much loved character actor. We don’t get her usual touch of unique humor, but instead get to see yet another side of this versatile favorite. A quick tip o’ the hat to Jean Wolff who provides some much needed comic relief as the overly critical and emotionally blackmailing mother of the groom and Josie’s Granny.
The Director is Amber Bjork who makes really good choices. I particularly applaud the handling of the final tragedies, one could easily imagine some directors leaning into the violence that takes place. Bjork depicts the violence but wisely chose to keep it a bloodless affair, which allows it to be impactful without be gratuitous. I also like the occasional use of live music and song, that helped create the proper mood for scenes. MJ Leffler’s set design was a delightful surprise. I guess I’m so used to seeing the Twin Cities Horror Festival shows in this space that I forget that they can do a full set. It’s a combination of branches and tree stumps and the some walls that represent the outside of Hester’s house. There are even tree branches coming out of the walls towards the ceiling, it really creates a sense of being outdoors. The Sound Designer, Jacob M. Davis creates a wonderful soundscape as well, it effectively puts the audience in the frame of mind that they are out on the bog even before the play begins. Including some nice directional effects such as a bird that calls out and the sound of a fire. The Lighting Designer Emmet Kowler gets everything right except when a fire breaks out, there needed to be some orange and red flicker added to the yellow.
By the Bog of Cats runs through April 2nd at the Crane Theater in NE Minneapolis, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreprorata.org/bogofcats/
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