I first read Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman during one of the most productive and exciting lunch breaks I’ve ever had. I downloaded a PDF on my computer, leaned back in my office swivel chair, and spent the following hour completely engrossed in this teasingly grotesque, entirely unpredictable, and darkly comic play. It was the perfect complement to my 9-to-5, and stimulating enough to keep my mind rampant with reflections and questions through my commute home.
This new production of The Pillowman, produced by The Seeing Place Theater, is running in rep with Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams as part of Seeing Place’s paired thematic exploration of how violent storytellers are dealt with by fearful authorities. The storyteller in this case is Katurian (Artistic Director Brandon Walker), whose violent creations have caught the attention of Detectives Tupolski (John D’Arcangelo) and Ariel (Logan Keeler). The detectives rough him up and make insinuations about Katurian’s socio-political motives—it is clear that the government’s been watching his career closely, as well as the whereabouts of his mentally-disabled brother Michael (Daniel Michael Perez). What you might expect to be a commentary on art and censorship, however, soon becomes something entirely different and far more complex. We learn that a disturbingly large number of Katurian’s stories depict children being brutally mutilated, killed, and even committing suicide, and someone in the town has been copying the murders.
The rest of the play vacillates between these totalitarian interrogation room scenes and Katurian’s storytelling, through which we discover the inspiration for his morbidity—his horrifying childhood—and the unique role his brother plays in his life. The genius of The Pillowman is how its analysis of physical and institutional violence avoids a top-down approach to power. Rather, every character’s power is intricately linked to their victimhood. While the detectives, as representative of the government, may appear to be the main abusers of power, it is actually Katurian and his brother whose actions lead to the most harrowing consequences. Michael’s childlike vulnerability, in particular, is the main means of terror in the story. Because he and his brother were preyed upon as children, they now hold the tools to enact it upon others, even if their actions were unintended. The violence of their childhood is repeated in adulthood in the mere expression of their tales. Is the artist responsible for the actions he inspires in his readers, even as he only tries to grapple with his past? Are we to be trusted with the resolution of our own traumas, or will these traumas repeat themselves in the subconscious of our society?
In the interrogation scenes, Brandon Walker’s Katurian spends a bit too much of his time pinching his nose and sniffling after getting beat up by Detective Ariel for the actors to really allow the dialogue to resonate. There were several points where the play’s absurdly dark humor, a style all McDonagh’s own, failed to come through. More nuanced were the scenes between Katurian and his brother. Perez’s sensitive portrayal of Michael illuminates both his victimhood and his resilience. Their scenes together succeed in giving the play its ultimately flawed heart.
Walker’s intensity was put to better use in Katurian’s storytelling. Here, his grief was steadily mixed with an engaging style. The childlike simplicity of Katurian’s fairytales-gone-awry is strongly contrasted with the savagery of their content (much like Katurian’s own childhood experience) and Waker’s re-telling left me with goosebumps more than once. The storytelling scenes also used computer graphics, musical sound effects, and a three-person ensemble representing Katurian’s family, to enliven the long oral narratives. Some of the scenes would have been just as effective without the visual and sounds effects, though I did think that the presence of Katurian’s family in the background served nicely to remind the audience how the brutality of our cultural myths and legends is not just the stuff fairytales but rather very much alive in our institutions (the state, the family) and our relationships.
A disturbing reflection on violent folktales and the cultures that produce them, The Pillowman is a must-see for anyone who enjoys their theatre with a hearty dose of harrowing surprises, moral dilemmas, and cynical humor.
The Pillowman and Gidion’s Knot, directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican, play in rep at The Clarion Theater through December 20. Visit The Seeing Place Theater for tickets.