Gift Theatre's 'Pillowman' Explores Kafkaesque Realities

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 3, 2020

Cyd Blakewell, Martel Manning and Gregory Fenner in The Gift Theatre's production of The Pillowman. Photo by Claire Demos.
Cyd Blakewell, Martel Manning and Gregory Fenner in The Gift Theatre's production of The Pillowman. Photo by Claire Demos.  

The Gift Theatre opens its 2020 season with Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," a grim and gruesome story about a writer living under a totalitarian regime who finds himself accused of a series of grisly child murders that mirror his own stories. In the close confines the Gift Theatre's storefront space, the company presents a harrowing exploration of human darkness under Laura Alcal Baker's direction.

The play opens with the writer Katurian Katurian seated, with a black bag over his head and an intimidation light directed at his body, at a wooden table, bopping sedately to incongruous piped-in music. He is soon joined by Tupolski and Ariel, investigators who do their level best to unnerve and torment Katurian as they question him about the content of his 400 stories, only one of which has ever been published.

Katurian is cooperative to the point of being obsequious from the start, but begins to unravel, particularly when the police lead him to believe that they are torturing his brother Michal, who is mentally disabled, in the neighboring room. Ariel eventually tortures Katurian after the writer calls the cop's bluff when he claims that Michal has confessed, wanting "brains of the operation" to confess before the brothers are executed.

Katurian's macabre stories, all but one of which concern the brutal abuse of children, weave through the rest of the play's events, as do the stories of all four characters. Ultimately, the horror of real life bleeds through into the stories, explaining the characters' damage without excusing their actions.

Scenic Designer Lauren Nichols creates distinct spaces within the grimy, oppressive police station. From the decaying acoustic tile that unexpectedly rains down squeaky pigs to the towering, falling apart bookshelf, every inch of the set seems capable of hiding anything.

David Goodman-Edberg's eerie lighting design, which flickers just infrequently enough that the world never quite comes to rest, keeps the audience unrelentingly attached to the characters' experience. Similarly, Mikhail Fiksel and Jeffrey Levin (Sound Designers and Composers) suffuse the space with sound that's just loud enough, just abrupt enough to keep us constantly off balance.

The puppet design by Daniel Dempsey is masterful. From the steamer trunk puppet theater rendition of Katurian and Michal's unspeakable childhood that opens the plays second half of the play to the freestanding puppets that represent the terrible approximation of comfort in a comprehensively brutal world, these objects and the actors fluid collaboration to bring them to life are vital to the melding of overt performance and dramatic interpretation.

The play itself has its flaws. It runs a solid two-and-a-half hours, and though it is to the credit of the director and the actors that much of that time passes seamlessly, there are stretches that edge over into horror that feels redundant and gratuitous, rather than enlightening.

In the cast, Martel Manning's performance as Katurian is simply outstanding. He moves with complete command between from beaten down victim to master storyteller, and from broken but loving brother to a man who clings to his stories — the only thing about his life he feels has meaning in the end.

As Michal, Jay Worthington is solid in what is the play's most problematic role. This is partly related to the set up before we see Michal, which employs language that feels not just outdated even for a play largely written in the late 1990s, but misleading. Michal's damage is almost exclusively emotional and psychological, not cognitive, a distinction that Worthington does an admirable job conveying. In terms of interaction between the brothers, Worthington and Manning handle as deftly as possible the highly stylized back-and-forth that ends the first half of the play, but this is the scene that most obviously lags.

As Tupolski and Ariel, Cyd Blakewell and Gregory Fenner distinguish themselves by never falling into overly referential or stereotyped performances. McDonagh owes a great deal to Kafka, Camus, and Havel, among others in his shadowy totalitarian states, but both actors have a clear sense of their individual stories, which informs all their choices.

"The Pillowman" runs through March 29 at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. For tickets, call 773-283-7071 or visit

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.