All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In his play, “The Pillowman,” naughty, naughty theatrical tease Martin McDonagh has one of his characters, a writer named Katurian, say the only reason writers write what they know is because they don’t have an — expletive deleted — imagination.
McDonagh suffers from no such deficiency. In play after play, he invents and fabricates with gleeful abandon and bountiful wit. His bricks are the fears, chances, and brave or craven acts people have or undertake when faced with an extreme situation or critical passage in their lives. His mortar is straightforward dialogue that brims with candor or sarcasm as it threatens, cajoles, bullies, taunts, or just expresses an undeniable truth no one wants to hear. In “The Pillowman,” for example, a detective tells someone he’s investigating he’s just giving him time to chat until he executes him. The person, who claims to be innocent, is taken aback. So, the detective says, “Just kidding” before he quickly recants and says, “No, I am going to execute you” while brandishing his revolver.
McDonagh makes comedy out of calamity and humor out of pathos. He’s a master of absurdity while keeping his plays in a very real, very intense context. Anything can be a joke, and an audience member might be surprised at what makes him or her laugh. A storyteller by nature, McDonagh can also spin a yarn that mesmerizes and takes you off your guard. He also relishes the ironic gag, as in the rollicking ending of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”
“The Pillowman,” which I regard as the author’s best play, has numerous examples of McDonagh’s dark humor, irrepressible playfulness, and spellbinding narratives. It also includes the intricate plotting and rampant violence found in most of the playwright’s works. The play springs into glorious being in the hand of Gregory Scott Campbell and his stellar cast at Luna Theater.
Campbell keeps his production simple and elemental. He lets the play’s inherent menace, mystery, and insidiousness come out through McDonagh’s words, which do the job just fine. From John Zak’s inspired take on the brain- and violence-damaged Michal and Robert da Ponte’s attempts to stay logical and real as Katurian to Ian Lithgow’s brilliantly nonchalant reading of a lead detective and Chris Fluck’s B-movie posturing as the “bad cop,” Campbell and company bring McDonagh’s tale of oppression and horror to vivid life, retaining every ounce of the playwright’s ample comedy while also creating a palpable ominous chill to Luna’s intimate South 8th Street space.
Dialogue smartly delivered and characterizations deftly drawn do most of the entertaining, but Campbell adds texture and an extra layer of reality by using a series of silhouettes to illustrate the grim stories that landed Katurian in trouble with the authorities of the police state where he lives, stories he needs to persuade the investigating officers are merely tales from his imagination, 400 of them, written at first to please his parents and later to entertain his stunted brother, Michal.
The silhouettes, craftily done by set designer Dirk Durossette and lighting designer Andrew Cowles, make Katurian’s stories into cartoons that match the tone of McDonagh’s play and Campbell’s approach to it. They are at once amusing and discomfiting. They literally illuminate the Katurian’s childlike, fairy tale writing style while being a visual reminder of the intentional sociopathic abuse prevalent in all but one story.
To McDonagh’s credit, the stories he creates in Katurian’s name are as gripping, entertaining, horrifying, and well-crafted as “The Pillowman” itself.
This is a great feat. I’m often surprised that playwrights or scenarists who interject letters or other examples of characters’ writing within are scripts are so poor at composing them. Not McDonagh. Katurian’s stories about the apple men, the little Jesus, the boy by the bridge in Hamelin, and the pillowman could stand alone in a volume of perverse fairy tales.
McDonagh may be lauded for his stories, but they get Katurian, whose full name is Katurian Katurian Katurian, a flight of fancy his parents allowed themselves, into deep trouble.
Each of Katurian’s tales involves a gruesome murder, either of or by a child, or some pariah whose crime is so gross, so unconscionable, he is shunned by other marauders and miscreants.
Katurian lives in a strict dictatorship, a police state where crimes that mirror those related in his stories begin to take place. Because of that, his writing, all 400 of his tales, are seized, and Katurian and his addled brother, Michal, are brought into custody to be questioned and, possibly, summarily killed. “This a dictatorship. We don’t need a trial. It’s quicker to just execute you,” Lithgow’s good cop, Tupolski, says matter-of-factly with no venom or threatening tone. To Tupolski, dealing with one more criminal, even one as interesting as Katurian, is just part of the day.
Katurian is astonished at the coincidence of actual child killings that imitate his stories. He claims to be a gentle writer, one who hopes to be published widely some day, who composes because that fills his time between taking care of Michal and making a living by being the clean-up guy at an abatoire. His stories also delight his brother, a victim of repeated child abuse by Katurian’s parents. Michal prefers Katurian’s mildest story, one about a little green pig, but he knows and can recite them all, so he must get some pleasure from them.
Michal is the key to the detectives’ case. He alone knows the details of Katurian’s creations. The mystery is whether Michal left the home he and Katurian share in the forest to perpetrate heinous crimes that act out the tales his brother invents. Michal, having the mind of a six-year-old and being constantly abused, may not know exactly what he’s doing. That is what Katurian and the police state detectives have to learn. Katurian is told Michal, possibly under torture or duress, has confessed to the crimes and will be executed.
McDonagh is a storyteller, and he would probably eschew anything as didactic and intellectual as assigning themes to his work, but “The Pillowman” provokes thought about several matters. One is the police state. McDonagh’s picture of detectives who have carte blanche to employ torture or corporal punishment and who can blithely say “trial schmial, I’ll shoot you at my whim,” is comic but probably truer to the mark than works that pretend fairness or justice is the aim of a dictatorship. The detective played by Lithgow is the sole authority in the play. He can decide whether to let Katurian wheedle or squirm, or even plead his case with logic, or to pronounce him guilty, shoot him, have done with it, and move on to his next assignment. Because of this, I’d be interested to hear about the reception “The Pillowman” received when it played in Iran.
“The Pillowman” also looks as life imitating art. Katurian’s stories are fictions. They come from his imagination and are meant to entertain and show his prodigious talent as a writer. If someone reads a book or newspaper article and commits a copycat crime, is the original source to blame? Supposing Michal did enact Katurian’s plot and murder innocent children, is Katurian equally or even partially culpable?
These matters are not explored in depth. As I said, McDonagh would probably laugh at their being explored at all, but they and the relationship of brothers, especially when one brother rescued the other from years of parental abuse, are subjects raised and food for thought.
The Luna production keeps “The Pillowman” on a straightforward, authentic keel. It presents all of the characters as being real and human whether it be Lithgow’s snarky lead detective or Zak’s sweet yet analytical Michal.
Campbell is right to let McDonagh take the lead and keep matters basic. The sense that the characters are flesh-and blood and not types or larger than life gives “The Pillowman” more depth and makes it more enjoyable. Less is more in this production’s case. Because it doesn’t try to create an eerie mood or overdo some of the horrors Michal endures (or perpetrates), I found the Luna “Pillowman” to be most effective and most provocative of the four productions I’ve seen of the play, which includes its original London and Broadway runs.
A lot of the credit for this goes to the cast.
Clear-eyed and ready to make a strong argument, Robert DaPonte plays Katurian with stunning naturalness. He is not unduly nervous about being questioned by the police. He is so assured of his innocence, he believes he can make logic and reason prevail, even in a country and situation when logic and reason might be regarded as an inconsequential luxury. In one of McDonagh’s flights of wit, he has Katurian denote his being questioned by the police as “something -esque” (meaning Kafkaesque).
DaPonte’s Katurian takes on his police adversaries as if he was their equal. He has nothing to hide, and in the collarless sweater and everyday pants in which Millie Hiibel has dressed him, he looks like any guy from anywhere in today’s world.
The casualness DaPonte exudes turns more anxious at some point, but never to the extent that the character pleads and goes into histrionics. The stoic acceptance of life in a dictatorship chills more than dramatic behavior. In scenes with Michal, DaPonte retains the same calm, reasonable tone. The actor shows a man dealing with facts as they are put in front of him as well as a man who realizes where his passions lie, with the creations, his writing, he has wrought from his imagination.
DaPonte’s coolness blends well with Ian Lithgow’s matter-of-fact approach to Tupolski. Looking dapper in a gray sharkskin suit and black mock turtle pullover, Lithgow is smoother than glass as he glides through his part. He casts a barrage of verbal darts, but he tosses them so subtly, the sarcasm and playful humor in them registers all the more comically.
Lithgow takes his time. He is a debonair officer, a man of some taste and decorum. He is also honest in his dealings with Katurian. He reminds him he is the lead detective in a criminal investigation in a police state, and Katurian, being the criminal, has a lot to worry about. His statement is delivered with total nonchalance, one statement of the same kind that will made to several suspects that week. Lithgow is master at this shrewd underplaying. As with DaPonte, his ease is more sinister than if Tupolski was a shouting lout who made his sadistic threats with a sneer. On the contrary, threats are routine to Tupolski, and Lithgow plays him as if he has to fight ennui as he uncovers the facts he pretty much knows anyhow.
Lithgow’s is a delicious performance, one that should be studied for its deceptive ease.
Chris Fluck takes a page from James Cagney, this time playing a cop, a regular suspicious and condemning cop filled with contempt and loathing for the worm Katurian who caused the horrible deaths of children. Fluck, dressed in a black double-breasted suit that makes him look at much like a mob thug as a police officer, is all bravado and direct threat. His job is to use force to extract information and confessions, and he itches to get to work. Controlled by his superior, Lithgow, in another display of comic genius, Fluck would like to kick Katurian in the ribs and gouge out his eyes. He relishes the one moment in which Lithgow’s Tupolski gives him liberty to give Katurian a slight tuning.
In contrast, Fluck’s character, Ariel, has a sentimental side. He was an abused child, so he understands some of what Katurian has done to spare Michal from his parents’ beatings.
In a production that boasts a collection of excellent performances, John Zak’s stands out for its particular brilliance.
Zak is a disarming Michal. His goodness and innocence shine through the shyness and the shoulder Zak keeps raised as if defending against another blow or strike from his father or Ariel.
Zak also conveys shrewdness. Michal may have been arrested emotionally as some level, but he has the native intelligence and the wit to spar with Katurian and to dispute him on matters Michal sees differently from his brother.
The combination of naivety and cunning added to the scared childlike pose of one who thinks and reasons like an educated adult creates a marvelous portrait of a man who has suffered greatly but is aware, to a great extent, of what happens around him and what is true in his life.
Zak’s portrayal of Michal reminds me of smaller, cuddlier Lenny from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The difference is, in spite of what Katurian says about Michal’s mentality, Michal can compete squarely in an argument and make you understand his point of view.
Michal’s innocence, and what he doesn’t know or realize because of Katurian’s sheltering, may have gotten the brothers attention they did want from the police state authorities. Zak’s way of explaining that is also a wonderful piece of acting.
Best of all is Zak shows how Michal was damaged physically and mentally but plays him as someone who has his own dignity and tries his best to be an adult human being in spite of his defensive posture, hand wringing, and childish voice.
“The Pillowman” derives it title from one of Katurian’s stories about a man composed entirely of pillows who visits children destined to commit suicide later in life to persuade them to end their existence in childhood and spare themselves years of anguish. It also refers to Katurian.
“The Pillowman” runs through Saturday, February 8, at Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th Street (8th and Kater), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (no show scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 30), 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with discounts for people age 30 and younger. They can be obtained by calling 866-811-4111 or going online to www.lunatheater.org.