Ariel (Trevor B. Cone)persuades Katurian (Aaron Echegaray) to cooperate with the investigation as Tupolski (Scott Holmes) Looks on. Photo Credit: Scott McWhirter.
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Directed by: Scott McWhirter
Company: Theatre Southwest
Run Dates: Oct. 24 – Nov. 15, 2014
“The first duty of a story writer is to tell a story”. This may seem obvious, but when uttered by the protagonist Katurian in Martin McDonagh’s 2003 award-winning play, The Pillowman, the articulation means far more than its tautological surface. Story, who tells it, for which reason and with what consequences is the thing being addressed in this darkly disturbing play, splendidly produced by Theatre Southwest.
Fans of McDonagh’s plays and movies have come to expect disquieting, squirm-worthy comedy/drama and breaths of unfresh air from his work. Plays such as The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997) The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) A Behanding in Spokane (2010) and movies like In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) all attempted to make us laugh at horrific situations and characters. But while The Pillowman has moments that force us to crack a smile in the face of horror, the play is a distinct left turn away from funny and towards the gravely discomforting.
Katurian (Aaron Echegaray) has been detained in an unnamed dictatorial country by two police officers, Ariel (Trevor B. Cone) and Topolski (Scott Holmes). Through their often sadistic and torture-ridden interrogation of him we learn that he is a writer of short stories which are often about the murder of or the murder by young children. In the next cell over is Michael (Sam Martinez), Katurian’s mentally challenged older brother who the cops claim to also be torturing. At first Katurian rejects any notion that his stories have effect or meaning beyond the page. “I’m not trying to say anything….I have nothing to grind,” he urges. But when the cops tell of copycat child murders based on his stories, Katurian is forced rethink his art and his purpose. Without giving too much away, let it be said that The Pillowman is mercifully far from a formulaic police procedural, instead using this set up to take several surreal twists and turns that at once thrill and disgust us.
Nor is there anything formulaic about Scott McWhirter’s wildly creative yet unsettlingly restrained direction. Upon entering the theater, we see Katurian blindfolded sitting worriedly in an interrogation room with a security camera pointed at him. We see what the camera sees via a live black and white, x-ray like image projected onto a scrim behind him. The effect wonderfully brings us into the feel of the play and is a clever nod indicating that what we see onstage can be reflected separately to provide a different or slightly skewed viewpoint. But McWhirter’s real brilliance in this show is the veil-lifting second act where the audience is given a glimpse at the circumstances that forged Katurian and his brother. Deeply upsetting, this part of the play’s arc could have easily lost its punch by overplaying the absurdist nature of the narrative. However, McWhirter reins the story in and with the help of John Baker’s terrifically eerie lighting and Trevor B. Cone’s cleverly contradictory sound design, provides a suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere for his cast to creep us out in. It’s a pin drop act and is one of the best iterations I’ve seen.
Direction this strong can often tease out strong performances from less than stellar performers, but there’s little need for that here. Echegaray’s Katurian is a bundle of stammers, hesitation and mumbles expertly conjured and perfectly timed in the face of interrogation. As Katurian’s outrage at incarceration grows followed by horror at what he may have unleashed, Echegaray allows the subtleties of his portrayal to fluidly develop with the circumstances. It’s a remarkably natural performance in the most unnatural of plays. But even more notable is Echegaray’s story-telling prowess as Katurian. Armed with some of McDonagh’s most bleakly brilliant writing in the form of Katurian’s short stories, Echegaray recites several of the dark, murderous takes during the play. Actually recite is too narrowing word. Echegaray dives full body into these stories bringing them vividly to life and ensuring that we can’t take our eyes or ears off him.
That is until our eyes and ears get locked on the equally talented Martinez as Michael. Playing mentally challenged…is…well….a challenge. One that can so easily dip into caricature or hackney portrayal. Instead, Martinez gives us an utterly believable and beautifully crafted character full of ticks and twitches and child-like affectations in a man size body. Michael is a dichotomy of pathetic innocence and unacceptable behavior and Martinez expertly evokes both in his performance. As Michael and Katurian take on the bulk of the play together, it is a joy to watch these two talented actors play off each other and do such justice to the script.
Even with all this praise to toss around, it’s almost impossible to be a critic without at least one quibble creeping in and here it’s laid at McDonagh’s feet. The third and final act in this 90 minute play is simply too long. By the time Katurian and Michael are reunited in the police station, McDonagh has done everything he can to wind us up and light the fuse. We know we are going to be told what happened and why. We are ready and willing to go there no matter how awful it may be. And yes the payoff is good. But McDonagh ambles here too long with dialogue and redundancy, taking a bit of the thrill out of the conclusion. Perhaps he should have taken Katurian’s advice and dispensed with the padding here and just told the story.
For the squeamish -Don’t. Just don’t. SKIP IT
For thrill seekers – Unlike some of McDonagh’s plays, this one isn’t a violent thrill ride. Instead it’s far more psychological and heady in nature. But put away your need for gore and there is no doubt your sense of darkness will be tickled. SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – This is a fantastic production all around, however the disturbing nature of the story and what may feel like an elusive moral point to the whole thing might make this one a show you sit out on. SKIP IT
For theater junkies – Should you see this production for the outstanding direction, some incredibly strong performances, killer lighting and sound design or McDonagh’s darkly interesting script? How about yes to all of it? SEE IT