Entertainment » Theatre

The Pillowman

by Brooke Pierce
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 22, 2013
The Pillowman
The Pillowman  (Source:T. Schreiber Studio)

When it first arrived on Broadway in 2005, Martin McDonagh's black comedy "The Pillowman" won many fans who loved that it offered something so compelling and unusual for Broadway. McDonagh's dark sense of humor was already well known from his acclaimed Broadway debut "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," but with its deeply twisted subject matter, "The Pillowman" went to new levels.

A pitch-perfect cast (featuring Billy Crudup, Jeff Goldblum, Zeljko Ivanek and Michael Stuhlbarg) and a creepily captivating production directed by John Crowley made it the dark horse favorite during Tony season, but the show was ultimately overshadowed by that year's big hit, "Doubt." Now, for the first time since it ended its fairly short run on Broadway, "The Pillowman" is back in Manhattan at the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, an intimate Off-Off Broadway space currently celebrating its 45th anniversary season.

As this production's director, Peter Jensen, says in his director's note in the program, Martin McDonagh resists writing plays with messages, opting instead to create powerful theatrical experiences that allow the viewer to determine what to make of it. At its most basic, "The Pillowman" is a play about storytellers, their stories, and the power that those stories have in the real world.

"The Pillowman" opens as one storyteller, a man named Katurian living in an unidentified totalitarian state, is being interrogated by two cops, Tupolski and Ariel. They question him about his hundreds of stories (most of them just one- or two-page tales scrawled by hand, and all but one unpublished), which they confiscated when they brought Katurian into the station.

As it is a totalitarian state, Katurian seems to be under the impression that the police believe his writings have hidden anti-government messages, which he strenuously denies. But it turns out that the police are less interested in any potentially subversive meanings and more interested in the obvious gruesomeness of the stories. Though he's reluctant to admit it, it just so happens that the vast majority of Katurian's yarns involve young children being subjected to various kinds of violence.

In a way, Katurian's stories do hint at another meaning, though it's a personal rather than a political one. As we learn in a story he tells about his past, his own parents were as diabolical as any of Grimm's worst monsters, putting his mind on the dark path that led to the creation of so many disturbed tales. Sometimes clever, sometimes possessing a strange beauty, Katurian's works tell of kids being maimed, tortured and killed, frequently at the hands of their adult caretakers.

Don Carter is perfect as quirky "good cop" Tupolski, while Tommy Buck manages to make "bad cop" Ariel the play's most identifiable character, full of righteous anger and what seems to be a genuine desire to do good.

McDonagh's play flies in the face of all conventional wisdom regarding what kinds of subjects can be made humorous, as his characters make many deadpan, evilly funny cracks in reference to Katurian's grisly literary tendencies. Is McDonagh making a statement about how desensitized we are to violence? Or, that we are only become sensitive to it when it IS about children? Or, as Jensen suggests, is he saying nothing at all? Maybe he's just daring us to laugh at the unthinkable and testing our limits.

One is almost tempted to call the cast brave for taking on their characters. They have to hit just the right tone to land the jokes, which are frequently odd, morbid and hilarious. In the hands of lesser actors, some lines could incite the audience to groan at best, or walk out at worst. Fortunately this cast does the material justice.

Don Carter is perfect as quirky "good cop" Tupolski, while Tommy Buck manages to make "bad cop" Ariel the play's most identifiable character, full of righteous anger and what seems to be a genuine desire to do good.

Alexei Bondar does equally well with the difficult role of Michal, Katurian's damaged brother who has also been hauled into the police station for questioning. Josh Mercantel gives us a passionate, believable Katurian, a young man who cherishes his own ability to tell stories, even as it has upended his life.

Director Jensen does fine work maintaining the play's macabre tone and finding moments of poignancy amidst the laughs and gore. Many stories are told within the play, and those moments are always captivating thanks to the combination of Jensen's direction, the skill of the performers, and McDonagh's engrossing writing.

In this Halloween season of self-inflicted terror, now is an ideal time to see "The Pillowman" and explore the shadowy and lurid corners of the human imagination.

"The Pillowman" runs through Nov. 24 at T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, 151 West 26th Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-741-0209 or visit www.tschreiber.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.

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