Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pillowman review

Dreamwell - I live so close to all of the really great things in Iowa City. I can enjoy tapas at Devotay, browse the wine aisle at the Pioneer Food Coop, or watch them toss pizza dough at Pagliai’s—all within in a matter of minutes.

Apparently, I am also a stone’s throw from really solid theatre work.

Saturday night, I left my house at approximately 7:23 p.m., strolled a leisurely four minutes to the Univeralist Unitarian Society basement and took a seat for the evening’s 7:30 p.m. curtain. Home-to-curtain in seven minutes—gotta love it.

The players: Dreamwell Theatre. The production: Martin McDonagh’s Tony Award winning, The Pillowman directed by Josh Sazon. The next two-and-a-half hours: a beautiful, layered—and very sinister—tale conveyed by a highly capable ensemble.

McDonagh, also known for The Leenane Trilogy and the more recent Aran Islands Trilogy, takes a chilling turn with The Pillowman. Katurian K. Katurian (yes that’s his name)—who lives “somewhere” and in “some time” in a totalitarian regime—writes short stories, all of which bear his signature motif: horrific child murders.

Katurian (Kevin Moore) has been taken into custody by two detectives who draw inimitable parallels between the subject matter of several of his most grisly works and a series of real child murders in the area. The detectives—the dry and composed Tupolski (Chuck Dufano) and the bombastic Ariel (Gary Barth)—grill Katurian as though every fictional detail read aloud is viable forensic evidence. The “good cop/bad cop” duo even brings Katurian’s “slower” brother, Michal, in on charges of dutifully enacting the crimes as instructed by his brother’s stories.

The setting (and narrative) shifts from a stark gray, high-walled box of an interrogation room where Tupolski and Ariel question Katurian—and where the tortured screams of his brother can be overheard in a nearby cell—to “story time” with a stylized telling of Katurian’s childhood horrors. Scott Schoonover’s set eases the transition by opening like a story book to reveal the warm hearth of a family home.
Katurian accounts the story of a young Katurian, whose parents loved him and cherished his nascent writing talent such that they tortured an unseen brother for seven years in an adjacent room. They hypothesized that, if the impressionable Katurian was subjected to the faceless, muffled sounds of torture, he would warp around the edges just enough to outgrow childish stories about little green pigs. The experiment was an unequivocal success.

Even after Tupolski and Ariel shift blame for the murders to Michal, Ariel further presses Katurian for writing the stories at all, as though writing stories of such a nature—for no apparent reason—makes Katurian complicit in the child deaths. When the interrogation turns to this line of questioning, the play’s broader issues fade into focus. What is the responsibility of the writer? (Or the video game creator? Or the filmmaker?) Also, does an artist have to be tortured to scour the depths? Does art even require depth?

As I began to ponder such rhetorical questions, I was given pause by Katurian’s own explanation—or lack thereof.

Katurian contends his stories don’t mean anything and are written as ends in-and-of themselves. I couldn’t help but wonder if—not unlike the characteristically clue-drenched “play within a play”—the “writer within a play” isn’t somehow the author himself telling me, through Katurian, not to look so deeply past the story into its “meaning,” lest I miss the point.

This is probably a weird thing to hear, given the subject matter of The Pillowman, but the play is also really funny. Much of the humor is McDonagh’s, but with equal parts Chuck Dufano. As Topolski, Dufano blends genuine accessibility with a loftily administered sarcasm that could make the phone book a funny listen. Katurian’s assertion that the interrogation is “like school” is answered by Dufano’s sardonic delivery: “except at school they didn’t execute you at the end…unless you went to a really #&*% tough school.”

Gary Barth (Ariel), Alex Moore (Michal), and Kevin Moore (Katurian) bring sturdy acting talent to the Dreamwell stage. I was delighted to see three pivotal characters handled by three guys who have, clearly, done this before. Each demonstrated seasoned chops and respective exceptional moments of intensity, intelligence and connectedness.

Kevin Moore, as Katurian, has an actor’s instrument. And he needs it for this role. Though there was a little bit of what I attributed to opening night “too much energy for the task” in the beginning of the interrogation scene, Moore took the ride and stepped into the role of storyteller, tortured (literally) artist and caring brother, luring the audience along a complicated (and very wordy) journey.

Jeff Emrich and Robin McCright do double duty as Katurian’s “Leave-it-to-Beaver-a-la-Roman-Polanski” parents and as the sick and abusive foster parents of a young girl in one of Katurian’s stories. As Katurian’s parents, they are the “smiliest” people you’ll ever hate.

And speaking of a “young girl,” yes, there is a little girl in the play—and, I gather, a pretty open-minded stage mom waiting in the wings. And that’s all I am going to say about that, lest I give anything away to all of the people who should see one of the remaining performances this week.

Whether you have a four-minute walk or an hour drive, The Pillowman is worth the journey.

--Angie Toomsen

Angie Toomsen has an MA in journalism from the University of Iowa and a BA in theatre from UNI. She spent nearly a decade in New York City, seeing, participating in and studying theatre. She still enjoys writing, acting and directing as time permits.

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