“What hope has a kitten in a town full of dogs?” pleads a wounded Cillian Murphy in Enda Walsh’s knockout one-man show Misterman, and the audience’s hearts bleed for him; of course, this is before we find out that the kitten in question has wicked claws. Murphy, a Cork-born Irish actor, is no stranger to the intersection between the angelic and the sinister, whether playing a sweetly optimistic transgender teen swept up in the horrors of the Troubles in Breakfast on Pluto or allowing Christopher Nolan to gleefully distort his matinee idol looks into eldritch horror in Batman Begins. Murphy has long been a personal favorite actor of mine due to his riveting ability to shift on a dime from charismatic to chilling and back again; fallen angels are his wheelhouse, and never has this served a production so well than in Misterman, a hellish 90-minute tour of a beautiful day in the neighborhood of Innisfree as given by a gravely warped Mr. Rogers. Pitching queasily from black humor to blacker horror, Murphy seamlessly manipulates the audience into hysterics one moment and shellshocked silence the next; one is spellbound by the grace with which he unites the godly and the ghastly together in seductively unholy matrimony.
In Misterman, Murphy plays Thomas Magill, a religious fanatic who, exiled from his village to an isolated warehouse, compulsively forces himself to relive the worst day of his life. With the help of a system of reel-to-reel recorders stocked with voices, Thomas carries on imaginary conversations with his neighbors as he pantomimes his daily routine of fetching Jammie Dodgers for his Mammy and visiting his father’s grave. The kicker is that Murphy also plays all of his neighbors, young and old, male and female, and watching him shift fluidly from wizened old woman to foul-mouthed delinquent to flirtatious waitress is nothing short of thrilling. Helpless in the face of the torturous inner voices that refuse to allow him to forget, these conversations with himself are part of Thomas’ attempts to painstakingly recreate the moments leading up to the truly heinous crime that necessitated his exile. Steadfast in his conception of himself as a one-man army of the lord, Thomas’ interactions with his neighbors are intended to get them to repent for their sins, rebuking them for such indecencies as pinup calendars and slow dancing. As more of the town’s souls slip through his fingers after his botched attempts to win them over to godlier lifestyles, Thomas acts increasingly more erratic; it is at this point that he also falls intensely in love with the town beauty Edel. Finally, as Thomas’ boy-scout righteousness begins to curdle into zealotry, the townsfolk decide to play a cruel prank on him; much like with Stephen King’s Carrie, the audience is then forced to watch helplessly as his pure intentions screech horrifically off the rails.
Misterman is a mesmerizing masterclass in Acting as Endurance Sport. Although Murphy, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, likens performing the one-man show to running in a race, it appears more akin to a killer obstacle course, which Murphy, formerly the frontman of a Frank Zappa tribute band, attacks with a rock star’s raw energy. He scales and sprints through the set with the elasticity of a Tex Avery cartoon. He coos, hisses and growls, hopping whole octaves of vocal cadences and shifting physicalities with the precision of a surgeon. He channels David Paich one moment and Ginger Rogers the next; he furiously hurls both epithets and cricket bats; he seduces himself, argues with himself, drenches himself in water and, in a chillingly convincing moment, beats himself up. By the time Murphy, sweaty and hoarse, ends the play a broken man, it’s easy to forget that he himself did the breaking. (Watching this gradual meltdown from the front row was impossibly intimidating, in part due to Murphy’s striking features; his full lips, devastating cheekbones and notorious blue eyes lend him an androgynous otherworldliness that flickers from magnetic to menacing throughout the play.)
On a 3,400 square foot split-level stage, Thomas is given a large arena in which to battle his demons. Set designer Jamie Vartan strips down the space to its steel-beam skeleton before cluttering it with detritus and filth; the furniture is mercilessly trashed and on the stained floor lay tires, a heap of sadly glowing Christmas lights and a crucifix made of empty Fanta bottles. The space serves as a Hieronymus Bosch-style appliance hell, where outdated tape recorders and obsolete electronics sprawl out on every surface. From these snake a patchwork of ambient sounds courtesy of Gregory Clarke – organs, cars, the relentless barking of dogs – which, paired with Donnacha Dennehy’s original score, amplify the jittery oppressiveness of Thomas’ personal purgatory. Rounding out the creative team is Adam Silverman, who cuts through the grime with shafts of unforgiving light. The space is just as much of a character in the play as Thomas is, frequently appearing to have a will of its own. Sometimes Thomas asserts control over his environment – one nifty moment has the soundtrack muffle accordingly as Thomas covers his ears – while other times, it seems to intentionally torture him: even after smashing the offending cassette with a hammer, Thomas is unable to force it to stop playing Doris Day on a hellish perpetual loop. In Thomas’ fractured mind, even appliances have sinister ulterior motives.
Walsh, a playwright whose deep love of the English language is palpable, once described Misterman as ”rural Irish Theatre seen through the haze of absinthe.” Murphy, discussing his character with the New York Times, identifies Thomas as an “eejit,” a proverbial town fool who “sociologically…is instantly recognizable to people in Ireland.” The play, packed with familiar archetypes, works in that it approaches these figures from prickly new angles. Thomas, though a typical eejit in that his town largely disregards him, rockets past an eejit’s characteristic harmlessness once his zealotry drives him to violence. Thomas’ distorted perceptions of his neighbors similarly elevate them past simple stock character status: “these characters are probably really normal, average people,” Murphy explains, “but through Thomas’ demented prism, we’re allowed to exaggerate them.” As Thomas dizzily descends into madness, he turns the citizens of Innisfree into sinful caricatures: the saucy waitress becomes Lust, the boisterous mechanic Pride, the surly town bully Wrath. Conversely, when the pretty, green-eyed Edel stumbles across Thomas’ path, he elevates her instantly to the status of an angel, the hope buried at the bottom of the Pandora’s box of Innisfree. It is any surprise that, once Thomas is forced to acknowledge Edel’s true nature, the outcome is disastrous? Much like finding a razor blade buried in one’s Jammie Dodger, Misterman ends with a stomach-lurching confirmation of one’s most morbid suspicions.
My four friends and I staggered out of Misterman shivering violently, but not from the December chill. (We unanimously adored it: never has someone crowed the phrase “his spit got on me!” with as much rapturous enthusiasm as my one friend, while another dazedly murmured “wow. Wow. Wow.” to herself all the way to the parking garage.) The show’s ghosts clung to us for days afterwards: Christmas lights began to appear unbearably morose, dog barks unsettled us, and we haven’t been able to see Doris Day and cheesecake the same way since. Although he claims that simply pulling off a one-man show is “the Mount Everest of acting,” Mr. Murphy should feel just as accomplished for giving three separate teenage girls nightmares. (We expect a formal apology letter, by the way.) After all, isn’t the mark of truly successful live theatre when it manages to haunt its audience long after the final bows are taken? Unlike the poor, tormented old eejit of Innisfree, however, I am all too pleased to relive Misterman over and over in my head.
Age 17, Grade 12