Odds are remote that we’ll witness an actual “Stevie Nicks is ‘Riverdance’ Medea’ ” this lifetime. Yet something uncomfortably close has ensnared Holly Hunter in the form of “By the Bog of Cats,” an ill-advised conflation of Greek themes, contempo dysfunctionalia, Irish mysticism and overripe language from Dublin playwright Marina Carr. Miscast star’s presence has made Timothy Near’s San Jose Rep world-preem production a hot ticket, but this yowling tragicomic mire is not ready for further public exposure.
The idea is intriguing enough, albeit risky — the Medea legend demanding a stark, primal force that neither author nor lead talent seem cut out for. Certainly Hunter is a wonderful actress on both stage and screen, but grandiosity isn’t her strongest suit.
Not that “Bog of Cats” would have served much better a thesp more suited to embody regal, larger-than-life despair. Carr (“On Raftery’s Hill”), who continued developing the play during its San Jose rehearsal process, seems caught between catering to a marquee name’s plucky persona, mining rather stock notions of “colorful” Irish character, and last — perhaps least — serving the daunting ancient myth she’s taken on.
Laying on thick daubs of portent, whimsy and garrulous showboating straight off, play opens with gypsy-caravan-bred tinker’s daughter Hester Swane (Hunter) roamin’ the marnin’ Midland bog. She encounters a formally clad “Ghost Fancier” (James Carpenter) who frets he’s “come too previous” — protag isn’t meant to be claimed by death till dusk.
That leaves 12 hours or so for Worst Case Scenarios to unfold. The day is already looking none too pleasant, as Hester’s former beau Carthage Kilbride (Gordon MacDonald) plans to wed Caroline Cassidy (Gretchen Cleevely), only child to the town’s wealthiest blowhard (J.G. Hertzler). The newlyweds plan to kick Hester — not to mention little Josie (Jillian Lee Wheeler), her “bastard” offspring by Carthage — off land he’s hitherto let her reside on.
In addition, Hester’s vaguely witchy ways, dank family background, erstwhile hard drinking and penchant for nocturnal bog treks endanger her custody of ever-so-precocious 7-y.o. Josie.
First act is a lumpen stew of badinage both twinklesome (e.g., “Well good marnin’ you old-wagon-of-a-girlchile!”) and stressfully lyrical, with phrases repeated so insistently to such pretentious effect you might suspect those calla lilies are in bloom again.
Designwise, production strains for big effects where less might evoke more. Simple set elements (kitchen table, a doorway) come and go via splashy hydraulics. At start, a giant black wrap (looking not unlike a mega-Hefty bag) hoists slowly, to no obvious point, off Joe Vanek’s abstract panels of faux cobblestone, sleet and soil. Snow flakes drop, wind and fog machines blow at random. Original score by Celtic music group Lunasa and singer Susan McKeown lacquers atmosphere with moony laments that, at this moment of Irish culture overexposure, sound too close to New Age folk-kitsch.
With Hunter coming off more as a free-spirit contrarian involved in a property dispute than a scorned Fury, subsequent action only underlines play’s inability to reconcile comic, tragic and horrific strains. The evening turns into an awkward succession of faceoffs, as one character after another clomps out into the bogland to enflame Hester’s emotions.
Carr overloads this haphazard course with narrative motifs and revelations as underdeveloped as they are unnecessary: There’s near-rape and suggested incest, and nearly everyone bears the psychological scars cut by runaway mothers. There’s no tonal balance to text’s messy agenda, no conceptual glue holding it together beyond contrivance.
Hunter can snap out a feisty line with ease, but on the whole she’s both indulged and ill-used here. The aspects that work for her Hester — salt-of-the-earthiness, dry wit, maternal devotion — undercut belief that a raging Medea lurks beneath this gypsy Madonna’s crunchy-granola demeanor. It’s a performance brave enough to risk embarrassment and unfortunate enough to attain it.
Near hasn’t pulled the uneven support cast into a viable ensemble, but under the circumstances, that task may have been beyond reach. Perhaps extensive rewrites and much-downscaled restaging could shore up “Bog.” In current form, it sinks.