If you observe closely the first few minutes of Marina Carr's By the Bog of Cats, which recently opened at the Rogue Theatre, you pretty much get a very condensed version of the story, as well as being introduced to the strange, dark and ominous tone with which it will be told.
We meet Hester Swane, (Marissa Garcia) an angry and lost resident of the bog, embracing the body of a black swan; Catwoman, (Cynthia Meier) a blind bog inhabitant who seems to have a gift for seeing what others do no, eats mice and declares that the death of the swan foreshadows Hester's own; and a handsome, sharply dressed gentlemen claiming he is the Ghost Fancier (Matt Bowdren) who has come for someone, but is turned away by the brash Hester. No death here, she declares.
But even though we feel we may have an insight into the possibilities the evening holds, the devil is in the details, and we really wouldn't want to miss out on devilish details of Carr's epic riff on mythological themes and characters. Or would we?
It's a long, relentlessly intense evening, and although it may cross the line of being too much of a good thing, Carr, in the hands of the Rogue's ensemble, gives us much to think about and appreciate, even though she pounds us rather mercilessly with her tale.
The story involves Hester, a gypsy or tinker, whose history involves an absent father (not much missed, it seems) and an absent mother, who was a real character, we hear from Hester herself and from others as well. But, unlike father, mother Josie is much missed by the tortured Hester, who is suffering even more at present. Her ex-beau, Carthage Kilbride (Ryan Parker Knox)—Carr is none too subtle with her character's names—has spurned Hester and is marrying a docile Caroline Cassidy (Holly Griffith) whose father Xavier (David Greenwood) is quite the unsavory character himself. In the middle of this mess is Hester and Carthage's bastard child, seven-year-old Josie (Larisa Cota), who is named after Hester's mother.
None of this pleases Hester, an alcohol-fueled victim of life, but also a fighter who will go to alarming extremes to stand her ground, although her community wishes her gone.
Mysticism, a story that borrows intentionally from the grandly awful myth of Medea, as played out in Euripides' tragedy and the madness of fated revenge born of abandonment and rejection shapes Hester's doom, which she will not experience alone.
Garcia's characterization is a very deliberate one, and it results in a Hester of extremes and little nuance. She is troubled, and she troubles us, presenting us a character difficult to warm to. However, much to Garcia's credit, we do. To the extent that she represents the feminine archetype daring to claim a position of power equal to that granted the masculine one, Carr argues for a sense of shared power held in an elusive but necessary balance. But Garcia's portrayal gives Hester an androgynous manner, perhaps to signify that the Feminine doesn't have be feminine.
The play's length challenges us, as it assumingly does the actors. The first act is an hour and a half long. Because of the intense nature of what we are witnessing, it feels overly long, and we might reasonably object to some of Carr's storytelling choices. Among the ghosts that roam the bog is Hester's brother whom she killed because she was jealous of her mother's attentiveness to him and who also holds financial power. He doesn't appear until late in that very long first act, and in some ways, it seems an awkward, though interesting, attempt by Carr to justify a plot point.
The cast entrusted to tell Carr's story is more than competent under Joseph McGrath's direction. In the character interaction beyond the tightly wound Hester, there lies humor that helps minimize the story's dark foreboding. Roger Owen and Patty Gallagher, in particular, contribute well.
Music is always a thoughtful addition to the Rogue's shows, and this production is no exception. Jake Sorgen provides the musical direction, playing guitar and mandolin and contributing original music with Samantha Bounkeua on violin.
Something lacking, however, is the set design. This bog, the Bog of Cats, is really a character in the story, and a strong sense of place is critical. However, McGrath's design, complemented with Don Fox's lighting, while functional enough, doesn't really deliver that sense. The actors give us an idea of where various scenes take place, but the name of the bog is invoked so often that it's presence should be felt more than the extent to which the actors can provide.
As it builds to its awful ending, the play is a corkscrew that pierces a frozen landscape, and in the final moment suggests an ephemeral spiral staircase that leads to an uncertain afterlife. The visual presentation of the play's closing moments is hauntingly beautiful.
Rogue challenges the audience, and themselves, with Carr's story through all of its strange and disturbed characters in a story which fate demands to be played out. It is a powerful, though imperfect, play and a powerful, though imperfect,