Spoleto's gems: 'Red Shoes' and Black Irish

There's still time to toss this weekend's plans into File 13 and dash off to Spoleto Festival USA for two theatrical experiences you won't get anywhere else.

One is an Irish play performed with pitch-perfect humor by an Irish company. The other is a drama so intense a woman had to be removed by paramedics - and she wasn't an actor planted in the crowd.

You actually have two weekends to see Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan," done by Druid Theatre Company of Galway, Ireland, through its New York-based partner, Atlantic Theater Company. But delay would mean missing "The Red Shoes," a weirdly compelling and sometimes brutal take on Hans Christian Andersen's story by Kneehigh Theatre. (Spoleto veterans will recall that English company's daring "Don John" and "Tristan & Yseult.)

Both shows deal with people who try to escape poverty and spiritual emptiness, are crushed by circumstances and pull emotionally and physically battered selves together. And both are, until the shocking conclusions, pretty funny.

McDonagh wants to explode every Irish theatrical convention at once: the beauty of life in small towns, the sanctity of motherhood, the value of religion, the tenderness of young women, even the belief that Ireland is a special spot. ("Ireland mustn't be such a bad place, if Yanks want to come here," says one fellow. This axiom is later applied to dentists, "colored people" and sharks.)

The Yanks are filming the documentary "Man of Aran" in 1934, and the title character (called "crippled Billy," with unintended cruelty) plans to take part, boosting his self-esteem for the first time ever.

He is put down by the two old ladies who adopted him after his parents drowned - possibly while trying to kill him - and by everyone else, from dimwitted pal Bartley to JohnnyPateenMike, a gossip who has unsuccessfully tried for years to get his mother to drink herself to death. Meanest of all is Helen, a comely lass out of Billy's league (though not beyond his hopes), who expresses herself through violence.

Though these people are truly loony or mean-spirited or dim, McDonagh makes us laugh at their outrageous behavior. He enjoys setting up a potentially tender scene - say, Billy speaking to his departed mother's spirit in a cheap hotel room - and then showing how he has fooled us into feeling sentimental.

The characters in "Red Shoes" don't even have names. The actors enter like political prisoners released from a work camp: shaven-headed, wearing only underwear, eyes sunken, faces spectrally made up, carrying battered valises.

A man in a moth-eaten coat and hideous woman's hat introduces himself as the mistress of ceremonies, occasionally exhorting actors to perform tricks or stunts. Those fall entertainingly flat, preparing us for a fairy-tale world where nothing goes as we might hope.

Director Emma Rice follows the Andersen tale closely until the end: A girl wears scarlet footwear to church, is cursed for vanity and condemned to dance until she dies. She convinces someone to chop off her feet - this was the moment when the paramedics were summoned, as a distressingly audible scene took place behind a curtain - but even then, she's not accepted by society. Andersen sends her to heaven, but Rice feels she has created a more optimistic (!) finale.

This version is a parable about libido. Too much destroys you, yet complete suppression of it doesn't sanctify the soul: You just go crazy. There may also be a political parable here: People who speak out too freely will be punished, but people who attempt to conform utterly to the norm become miserable.

Kneehigh creates a variety of moods with a few props and costume changes. Two musicians, who play anything from harp to trombones, reinforce the atmosphere of a carnival that has come from hell to show us the way to - well, maybe not heaven, but sanity.

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