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Duggan mesmerizes in 'By the Bog of Cats'

If veteran actress Dani Duggan were ever to break a sweat, it might be as the fiery Hester Swane, at the center of ``By the Bog of Cats." Yet in a Devanaughn Theatre production, Duggan carries the play on her remarkably petite shoulders without fading or faltering. In doing so, she delivers a mesmerizing portrayal of an Irish tinker battling to preserve her sense of family and home.

``By the Bog of Cats" follows Hester through one of her most tragic days. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, Hester finds her entire existence linked to the bog where she's pledged to stay until her mother returns. She had a 14-year relationship with Carthage Kilbride (Charles Hess) until he abandoned her for the daughter of an area landowner. Hester and Carthage share a young daughter, Josie, and now Carthage wants Josie to live with him and his young wife. All of the shattered relationships in Hester's life intersect on this day, and many of the collisions are caused by her choice to battle wildly for her tangible and intangible possessions.

Marina Carr's drama interweaves contemporary and mythical elements. While the brogues place things squarely on the Emerald Isle, the dialogue has a decidedly modern ring. At the same time, it is not unusual for a ghost to appear amid the action, and Carr draws upon -- sometimes quite provocatively -- thematic and dramatic elements of Euripides' ``Medea." Carr mirrors the catastrophic human behavior in Euripides' work while bringing her own visceral sense of femininity, identity, and devotion.

Rose Carlson's thoughtful direction lets the action tumble forth steadily. And there's a surprising amount of humor among the script's haunting events. Ann Marie Shea, as Mrs. Kilbride, Carthage's self-centered mother, is the source of much of that humor. Liz Robbins is solid as the creepy yet insightful Catwoman, a blind bog inhabitant named for her meal of choice, who senses danger but is wise enough not to interfere with fate. Hess plays Carthage with an excellent blend of pity and melancholy. Carthage's passion for Hester is evident, but it's clear he's moved on, making her unrelenting devotion all the more pathetic, or even pathological.

The Devanaughn Theatre usually manages to make good use of its limited, nontraditional playing space in the South End's Piano Factory, but ``By the Bog of Cats" aches for more space, and this production suffers for it. Much of the motivation for why characters stay, go, and fight is tied to the bog, the land, and the wealth it produces. And the power of Duggan's performance as Hester is confined by the space. There's no doubt her impact would increase in direct proportion to the square footage granted her.

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