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The Pillowman Will Give Some Needed Chills this Warm Winter

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.

BrandonWalker(Katurian)_LoganKeeler(Ariel)_JohnD'Arcangelo(Tupolski)_2
Brandon Walker, Logan Keeler, and John D’Arcangelo in The Pillowman

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.

Love and Pride Clash in The Seeing Place’s Modern Day “Othello”

The reliably innovative and earnest Seeing Place Theater company begins its sixth season with a modern take on a Shakespearean classic. Written at a time of growing global markets, bursting urbanization, and an influx of immigrants into London’s commercial hub, Othello is Shakespeare’s race play. Othello is a Moorish (historically Muslim) general in the Venetian army whose recent successes attract the envy of Iago, a fellow soldier. Iago hatches a malicious and complicated plan to ensure Othello’s downfall, manipulating not only Othello’s military reputation but also his recent secret marriage to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter.

Brandon Walker (Iago), Ian Moses Eaton (Othello) and Logan Keeler (Cassio) Photo by Justin Hoch
Brandon Walker (Iago), Ian Moses Eaton (Othello) and Logan Keeler (Cassio) Photo by Justin Hoch

I came to this production with criminally little knowledge about Othello. A co-worker once gave me the run-down of the plot a few years ago. Plus, I knew that Desdemona on Gargoyles got her name from the play.  I was worried that the production would go right over my head and I’d be in for nearly three hours of mindless observation. I generally don’t understand Shakespeare unless I have read the plays before, and this fact did not bode well for my night.

However, I am happy to report that Othello was extremely accessible and quite accommodating to the new viewer and Shakespeare fanatic alike. Barring some of the military plot twists (and who really pays much attention to those anyways?), I was able to comprehend near everything in the play and leave satisfied with having digested the play’s nuances and complexities.

Much of this credit is attributable to the production’s cast. Ian Moses Eaton gives a tremendous portrayal of Othello’s descent into paranoia, extremism, and jealousy. The gentlemanly and stalwart leader of the play’s start is crippled emotionally and physically into a crippled and confused villain. Company founders Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker also contribute greatly to the production’s energy. Cronican is a naturally sympathetic Desdemona. Her presence onstage edifies the scenes around her with genuine sincerity. Walker takes on Iago with slick relish. His monologues felt a bit rushed at times (I caught up on the schemes I missed in the later scenes) but he works extremely well with his dialogue. His undercover Iago is humble and non-suspect. If you blink and miss the sinister glint in his eye, you’d immediately overlook him.  I felt like the strongest scene of the production takes place with Othello and Iago at their desks, filing paperwork. It is in this banal, almost domestic setting that Iago plants the first seeds of doubt into Othello’s mindful poise, and watching the scene evolve was a thrill.

Erin Cronican (Desdemona), Ian Moses Eaton (Othello), Brandon Walker (Iago) and John D'Arcangelo (Brabantio). Photo by Justin Hoch
Erin Cronican (Desdemona), Ian Moses Eaton (Othello), Brandon Walker (Iago) and John D’Arcangelo (Brabantio). Photo by Justin Hoch

As the plot grew increasingly complicated, the production required extra support and structure to see itself through unscathed. The larger scenes were often chaotic and unfocused.  Minor characters and extras were underused in scenes with large groups and some of the background activity was directionless or hastily improvised. Strategic staging in such scenes could have also ameliorated some of the scenes’ confusion, as well as add to the emotional punch of the play’s final deadly minutes. Overall, however, the Othello experience was satisfying one, and I am excited to see what else lies in store for this exciting company’s new season.

Othello plays at The Clarion Theater through March 15. $15 Tickets available here.

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