Role Playing: Baize Buzan hones the steel spirit of a brash Irish lass in ‘Cripple of Inishmaan’
Interview: As playwright Martin McDonagh’s spunky Helen, the young Boston-bred actor summons a character that amazes (or annoys) audiences at Redtwist Theatre. Through July 1.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Baize Buzan knew she had the right slant on the feisty, egg-smashing Helen in Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy “The Cripple of Inishmaan” when she heard, distinctly from the audience at tiny Redtwist Theatre: “That awful girl is here again.”
The “cripple” in McDonagh’s tale about the bleak, rough life on the isle of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland, in the 1930s, is a lad called Billy, who grabs at life’s brass ring by sailing off to America with dreams of stardom in Hollywood. But the character likely to stick most vividly in memory is Helen, a lass brimming with life who gets along on her good looks and a policy of intimidation.
“I’ve never encountered a character like her to play,” says Buzan, whose petite frame stands in contrast to the daunting impishness of her performance. “When I first read the play, I thought she’s so mean, heartless and cruel. And she is. But I’ve often heard directors say you can’t view a character from the outside. You have to look for connections to yourself. What I really see in Helen is someone who’s incredibly sensitive and full of love. It’s just that Helen doesn’t sugar-coat or glide over anything.”
Not for a moment does Buzan’s intense, free-wheeling – indeed, free-swinging – Helen bring to mind sweet mitigation. This girl, who says she’s been fending off the paws of lascivious priests since she was six years old, meets the world head-on. No one, man or woman, old or young, messes with Helen.
“Really, she’s just a girl of a tough place and time,” says Buzan. “We had a dramaturg (historical researcher) for the production who described the reality of the Irish fishing islands in the 1930s. It was not what we on the outside think of as the ideal green Ireland. There was no electricity. It was bleak, boring and rough. The dramaturg told us about a man who beat his daughter to death, and the law decided she got what she deserved. So there was a certain casualness to the violence.”
For Bouzan — who grew up near Boston and gravitated to the Chicago theater scene after graduating from Vassar College in 2010 — embracing the rockier side of the Irish character also meant grappling with an Irish accent for the first time.
“We had an incredible dialect coach. She would sit in the audience during run-throughs, writing down errors. It took me a while to lock into it. I wrote things down phonetically. It’s been a great gift not to have to worry about that any more and just focus on the joy of this part, to play someone who’s constantly having fun, outwitting people, making games and competitions out of everything. Helen does all the crazy things she does not from malice or angst but from pure delight.”
No doubt Helen’s most remarkable diversion is smashing eggs over the head of her hapless brother Bartley. Real eggs, mind you, that ooze over the hair and down the face and clothing of actor Patrick C. Whalen.
“It’s her favorite thing to do,” explains Buzan matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t come from a crazy psychological place. It’s a release, an amusement. On Inishmaan, there’s not much else going on.”
Still, the actor admits she wasn’t so blasé about capping her colleague with eggs at the start. That took some adjustment and, she adds, reduced director Kimberly Senior to a puddle of convulsive laughter.
“At first in rehearsal I’d just smash my hand on Pat’s head, but then came the day when I actually had to break an egg on him. I was terrified I’d hurt him. Eggs are tough little pods. The whole thing was hysterical. Kimberly was crying in her seat she was laughing so hard. And I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to be able do this without just losing it?’
“I do try to be careful about where I hit his head, and we make pinholes in the eggs to make them break more easily. I told Pat I’d let him break eggs on me at the end of the run. But he’s such a nice guy, he refused to do it. Our amazing production team has to do laundry every night – egg stains and ‘blood’ stains.”
The egg mash-up, which is quite lavish in one scene, has taken Buzan’s appetite for eggs any style. “I view them more as objects, less as food. I see them running down Pat’s face.”
Helen’s two-fisted aggressiveness notwithstanding, says Buzan, underneath it all she’s a teenager like any other, vulnerable and sweet on Cripple Billy (Josh Salt).
“She’s 17, and insecure and scared about that emotional side of herself. So around Billy she acts like a second-grader on the playground. She’s cruel to him because she wants his attention. When Billy disappears and she thinks he might have died, she feels a certain guilt. When Billy comes back, it’s a miracle. She checks her pride. She doesn’t let her guard completely down, but it’s a big moment and she takes a load of armor off.”
Helen doesn’t exactly throw herself at Billy. It’s not her style, says Buzan. She may have put her shield aside, but not her rapier. Billy will still feel the edge of that.
The Redtwist production is not Buzan’s first encounter with McDonagh’s denizens of Inishmaan. While she was still in college, she and a group of fellow acting students read through the play. “We thought it was just a lot of silly people saying silly things,” she recalls.
Now, immersed in the ruggedly humorous culture of Inishmaan, she sees the picture quite differently.
“I’m very lucky to play Helen,” says Buzan. “She’s so strong. Of course, you always want the audience to love you and that just doesn’t happen with Helen. No…”
Her voice trails off with a sigh, like the viscous drip of a raw egg.
- Review of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” at Redtwist Theatre: Read it at Chicago On the Aisle
More Role Playing Interviews:
- Stephen Ouimette brews an Irish tippler with a glassful of illusions in “Iceman”
- Ian Barford revels in the wiliness of an ambivalent rebel in Doctorow’s ‘March’
- Chuck Spencer flashes a badge of moral courage in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price’
- Rebecca Finnegan finds lyrical heart of a lonely woman in ‘A Catered Affair’
- Bill Norris pulled the seedy bum in ‘The Caretaker” from a place within himself
- Diane D’Aquila creates a twice regal portrait as lover and monarch in ‘Elizabeth Rex’
- Dean Evans, in clown costume, enters the darkness of ‘Burning Bluebeard’
- Dan Waller wields a personal brush as uneasy genius of ‘Pitmen Painters’
- City boy Michael Stegall ropes wild cowboy in Raven Theatre’s “Bus Stop”
- Brent Barrett is glad he joined ‘Follies’ as that womanizing, empty cad Ben
- Sadieh Rifai zips among seven characters in one-woman “Amish Project”
- Kirsten Fitzgerald inhabits sorrow, surfs the laughs in “Clybourne Park”
- Janet Ulrich Brooks portrays a Russian arms negotiator in “A Walk in the Woods
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Baize Buzan. Descending: Helen (Baize Buzan) expresses a little sisterly affection for her brother Bartley (Patrick C. Whalen). An almost affectionate moment between Helen (Baize Buzan) and Billy (Josh Salt). Below: Helen (Baize Buzan) gives brother Bartley (Patrick C. Whalen) an egg shampoo. (Production photos by Kimberly Loughlin)