“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,” Katurian says to his brutal interrogator Tupolski.
In “The Pillowman,” there has been a series of child murders imitating events in Katurian’s gruesome stories, and the writer and his mentally ill brother Michal are being held under suspicion.
“The Pillowman” is a 2003 play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It received its first public reading in an early version at the Finborough Theatre in London, in 1995. The play received the 2004 Olivier Award for Best New Play, the 2004 Award for Best New Foreign Play, and two Tony Awards for production. It was nominated for the 2004 Evening Standard Award for Best New Play.
Some say this is McDonagh’s best work, I might be inclined to agree. “The Pillowman” creates an artful mesh between reality and fiction. Director C. Anthony Robinson, in his directorial debut, is entrusted with bringing this play to Generic Theater’s stage, and he responded to it with a clear vision and an imaginative production. We see a stark, very minimal set when we enter with just a table, chairs, a door, a screen above the stage, black panels and a sheer panel to stage left.
We are immediately are intrigued and begin to think “OK, what’s going to happen here?” We then see Tupolski, played by Tashana Latrice, and her partner Ariel, played by John Robert Heckler. Ms. Latrice plays Tuposkli with the regalness of Angela Bassett and the toughness of Viola Davis. This would make for an interesting episode of How to Get Away with Murder, but I digress. You know Tupolski meant business, but she has a way of making Katurian comfortable, (after all she is the good cop)… But not too comfortable. Mr. Heckler, as the bad cop, does a nice job as Ariel. I wish the chemistry between the two partners was a little stronger and more convincing from the beginning. Katurian was played superbly by Ryan Quinn McIntire. We knew this guy wrote these horrific stories about children but you couldn’t hate him because McIntire had a way of making Katurian likable by showing us that we could identify with what he is going through. For example, his protective relationship with his brother. McIntire believes what he is doing and saying and so do we. Once we meet his brother, Michal, played by Ed Palmer, we see the depth of the character that McIntire creates.
We see that brotherly bond and love from both actors. The first scene of Act 2 can bring you to tears, and yes I turned on the waterworks. In this particular scene it is just the two of them in a cell and it was brilliantly acted by McIntire and Palmer. I wanted to hit a rewind button just to watch it again. When you’re playing someone with a mental illness there is a fine line you walk. You can be seen as being a caricature of something, or seen as actually creating a character of your own. Palmer was no caricature. His portrayal of Michal is honest and sincere.
Since we hear many stories in the course of the play, that “first duty of a storyteller” is fulfilled. The acting, directing, lighting and sound kept us as engaged as kids around a campfire. I think one of the hardest decisions as a director of this show had to be how much to dramatize the stories. The route that was chosen by Director Robinson was very clever. The combination of animation, using the screen above the set, and the scrim panel stage left was extremely creative. Robinson used an ensemble of able actors to act out some of Katurian’s stories behind the scrim. The scrim was back lit, so this was done as shadows, which didn’t overshadow the storytellers. The way Robinson chose to emphasize the storytelling was brilliant. I wish the location where the action took place was a little more clear and defined by actual walls instead of the black panels. It took me out of the story sometimes when I had to remind myself where they were. The moments they chose to transition the lights and emphasize certain moments in a scene was very clever. It was as if we were watching a movie and the camera zooms in. Technically the show was clean and precise. They nailed it!
Go see “The Pillowman” if you love a good drama and good acting.