By the Bog of Cats was inspired by Euripides' Medea, but the major interests of playwright Marina Carr lie elsewhere. The Irish Heritage Theatre production, running through Nov. 18 at Walnut Theatre Studio 5, captures her sense of Ireland's mythic suffering, a world full of colorful villagers, witches, and ghosts who live on the shores of a mysterious bog.
Protagonist Hester Swane, an Irish tinker, is betrayed by her lover, Carthage. He abandons her to marry Caroline (Jenna Kuerzi), long-suffering daughter of a wealthy landowner. Hester's need to take revenge on Carthage fuels the action. At that point, the play parallels the Medea plot, but it soon diverges.
There is more to Hester, that is, than revenge-seeking. She is desperate to win back her false lover, and, unlike Medea, Hester's need for belonging is so intense she could never accept exile. Played with conviction by Kirsten Quinn (who is also president of the board of directors at Irish Heritage), Hester tussles with the villagers as a multitude of expressions cross her face. In Act 2, she crashes the wedding party, where the entire community is present in all their tragicomic weirdness.
Carthage (Arlen Hancock) is prone to momentary outbursts that mask his cowardice. Imposing landowner Xavier (Ethan Lipkin) seethes with repressed perversity. Carthage's mother (Mary Pat Walsh) is too comically self-absorbed to recognize her own vanity. Monica (Susan Giddings) takes on the unenviable task of honest mediator. A tippler priest (John Cannon) is guest of honor. Spooky Cat Woman (Tina Brock), a blind soothsayer, delivers spellbinding oracular pronouncements, while innocent Josie (Keri Doheny), Hester's 7-year old daughter, looks on in wonder. A pair of meandering ghosts bring in yet more atmosphere.
But I wish the show did a better job of capturing a sense of the peat bog, a fetching metaphor for bottomless Irish passion. Director Peggy Mecham is luckier with sound design: Zack McKenna delivers an eerie mix of soft chords in the strings.
Euripides' Medea is more like a Jacobean revenge drama than a Greek tragedy. Fully self-aware, triumphant in her gory evils, Medea has plenty of flaws, but she is, outrageously, not tragic in the traditional sense. She destroys others but not herself. Hester is not so monomaniacal. As mentioned, she wants love and belonging as much as revenge. Yet Carr does return to the Medea plot for her ending. While this honors the Greek classic, it does not do justice to Hester or her Irish world. You rather expect her to carry on in tragicomic fashion. After all, you just spent an hour and a half watching her enchantingly do just that.