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The Stoves of Martin McDonagh

Jim Guy • February 2020Props • February 5, 2020

In the December 2019 issue, Jim Guy, prop director for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, spoke about creating bones and skulls for a production of Martin McDonagh’s play, A Skull in Connemara. This month, Guy talked to us about two more solutions for Martin McDonagh’s plays, this time two different stoves for two different productions. Read on to see how he got them all cooking along.

My advice is, if you want somebody to write a play for you, get Martin McDonagh; but never let him babysit for you! McDonagh and stoves; he’s really got a thing for them. We had two different stove challenges for two of his plays at The Rep. 

That’s Going to Leave a Mark
The first was for The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In it, this middle-aged woman lived in a cottage out in the Irish countryside with her mother; she believes that she has finally found love but her mother sabotages the relationship. When the daughter finds out about this—psychopathology on parade, she sets to making fish and chips for dinner as if nothing had happened while her mother just keeps confessing and apologizing. The daughter fills a pot with what appears to be cooking oil and turns on the flame. We had live propane flame for this stove on stage. (There’s also a peat stove for heat in the room.)

As her mother approaches her after the oil has been on the burner for a probably three minutes or so, the daughter grabs her mother’s hand, slaps it down on the burner on the peat stove, and pours the oil over her hands so it sizzles, smokes, and everything. The mother let out a shriek that I’m sure scared people out on Wells Street! Nobody could shriek like the actress Rose Bickering. Then the daughter stands back and throws the hot oil in her mother’s face.

Smoking Hot
What we did to solve the burning oil effect was we made basically a double boiler for the oil. We got an aluminum pot and we lined it with thermal insulation, the material that they line stoves with to keep you from burning yourself while you’re working on dinner. Then we had a smaller pot inside of that. And we found that we could give that high heat for up to eight or nine minutes before whatever was in the pot would become uncomfortably warm. For the oil we used aloe juice, which has the same consistency as cooking oil, but it’s not nearly as greasy.

The peat stove was rigged so that there was a can of “Fog in a Can” underneath it with a pressure switch. When the actress slapped the mother’s hand down and simultaneously poured the oil on it, ‘steam’ would be shot up through the burner. The sound designer for the production, Barry Funderburg, gave us just the greatest sizzling sound effect. I was creeped out when I went to see the show; it was so convincing. The sound and the actors sold the whole thing. Basically, the daughter doused the mother with the aloe as burning hot oil. (Incidentally, the actress Rose said the aloe was good for her skin!) 

High Tech Stove
For another stove story, this one is from our production of McDonagh’s play The Lonesome West, which is another one set out in the countryside of Ireland. In the play there are two brothers who are constantly warring; forced to live together in this cottage. This stove, which in the play is brand-new and one of the brothers is just so proud of this stove. In the end, it had more gizmos in it than the Apollo 7 space capsule; it was its own character. It had a gag with hot, melted plastic; then it gets “executed” with blasts from a shotgun. This stove was primarily the invention of my carpenter, Erik Lindquist (who is still with me after 20 seasons) along with my collaboration. I took care of the firearms and the pyro for it, but Erik loaded the stove with pneumatics that made it jump around and come apart rather spectacularly. It was lots of fun. 

Boiled Saints
One of the two brothers collected plastic saint statues. At the end of a scene in Act One, the brother who collected the statues, and the priest were going to go down to the pub together. The priest invited the other brother along who told them he’d be long in a minute. As soon as the brother and priest were out the door, the second brother got a big cooking pot out, put it in the stove, dumped all of the plastic saints into it, closed the door, turned the heat up, and then went down to the pub.

When the priest and the two brothers get back, they walked in and they smelled something, and a little bit of smoke is creeping out of the stove. When the brother opened the stove and pulled it out, there are all these molten saints floating around in this pot. And the priest who is blind drunk, panics and reaches into save the saints, shrieks and runs out with what is what appears to be molten plastic dripping from his hand. Todd Rosenthal, who designed the set for this show, emailed me a few weeks later and said that he was in a bar in Chicago and overheard two guys talking about our stove!

Revolving Saints
I had Erik build a turntable in the oven cavity so when they put the pot with the saints in and closed the door, the turntable revolved to bring the pot of “melted” saints to the front of the oven. To create the melted saints that would be brought out by the priest, I used tinted wallpaper paste into which we introduced some squirts of a few different colors of pigment so it looked like multicolored plastic when he withdrew his hands with a few sad saint bits clutched in his fingers. We also added a puff of fog that would draft out when the brother opened the oven door.

Shooting the Stove
Probably the most impressive tricks the stove did was during its “execution” by two shotgun blasts. For the shotgun, I hand-loaded shotgun shells with flash powder and flash cotton. The first shot was a broadside shot that was supposed to go straight through the body of the stove. The entry wound was produced by way of a drop-down panel masking a gaping hole in the onstage side of the stove. The panel was masked by an energy usage sticker that was torn to shreds when the panel it was adhered to dropped into the body of the stove revealing the entry wound. 

The exit wound was a flipper panel of blown up, mushroomed-out sheet metal on a spring-loaded pivot panel that was masked by a section of magnetic sheet painted to match the stove. The magnetic sheet was blown off the offstage side of the stove and propelled into the fireplace upstage of it. It happened so quickly that all the audience saw was the blown-out mushroom hole appear. 

Coup de Grâce
The second shot was fired down into the top of the stove from above. The stove top was on a one point pivot on its upstage corner so that the range top swung downstage and cast the burner covers into the room when the stove lurched forward propelled by a pneumatic cylinder in one of the upstage corners of the base. 

At the same time the door, from which Erik had removed the spring, flopped open, triggering a small flash and smoke charge that I had built. It was detonated by what amounted to a refrigerator door light switch. Door open, contact completed, flash and poof. Then in the final comedic Elmer Fudd-style moment of the gag, the brother with the shotgun posed proudly next to his “kill” and after a beat a magnet released the dial panel that ran across the front of the stove which was on a one-point pivot so that one side dropped and the panel swung a couple of times from the other corner and came to rest. It never failed to get a laugh. 

So, if you’re going to be doing a Martin McDonagh play, you now have a head start on solving some of your stove challenges. 

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