Encore Michigan

Monster Box and Intrinsic Theatre presents darkly riveting ‘Pillowman’

Review July 01, 2017 Patrice Nolan

WATERFORD, Mich.—Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is a brave choice for any theater, but for Director Bradley Hamilton, it is the right play to launch at Monster Box Theatre in a joint presentation of the play with his new Intrinsic Theatre Company. It’s an incredibly dark drama. It deals with disturbing subject matter. It relies on provocative dialog that has more jagged edges than heat lightning in the night sky. But it also embraces big themes—the nature of sacrificial love, the double tragedy of victims who become perpetrators, and the transcendent immortality of art. This is the real deal; this is what theater does best.

In 2004, The Pillowman received the Olivier Award for Best New Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Foreign Play, and two Tony Awards. It’s one of the finest and most unnerving pieces of storytelling you’re likely to find on any stage. This production embraces the opportunity to get inside your head and under your skin.

The Pillowman is set in a police state, where two officers are interrogating a writer whose gruesome short stories seem to parallel the twisted murders of local children. Oscar Wilde once famously quipped that “life imitates art,” without considering the implicit consequences of art that inspires abhorrent violence. The writer, Katurian, defends his macabre tales as nothing more nor less than well-crafted stories, written for art’s sake, with no political or social message. He is both befuddled and frightened by the violent anger of the “bad” cop, Ariel. And he is unnerved by the arbitrary and emotionally remote interrogation of the “good” cop, Tupolski.

Katurian maintains his innocence, but cannot explain how or why the murders so closely follow his stories. When he hears Ariel torturing his simple-minded brother Michal in the adjacent cell, determined to force a confession, Katurian realizes that they are being framed as child murderers.

From this point, the play takes a number of twists and turns that engage the audience much in the manner of a murder mystery. We also hear a few of Katurian’s riveting stories, which unfold like bedtime fairy tales told by Edgar Allen Poe. At least one of the stories, we learn, is autobiographical, and it is perhaps the grimmest.

The Pillowman is a physically and emotionally demanding play that can only work with a company that has serious chops. This cast is up to the challenge. Alexander Sloan is convincing as Katurian, an author who just wants to write and has little interest in the real world. At a critical moment in the play, he admits that if he could only save one thing – his brother, himself, or his stories – he’d save the stories that are his life’s work. Alexander Trice is disarming as Katurian’s older brother, Michal, who is developmentally stunted because of brain injuries suffered as a youngster. Michal is trapped in a sort of limbo that offers neither the innocence of childhood nor the discernment or discretion of adulthood. Meghan VanArsdalen (Tupolski) and Matthew Jarjosa (Ariel) work amazingly well in the good-cop/bad-cop tango that ultimately reveals more about their own motives than either would like. Dale Dobson and Jenna Kellie Pittman appear as the sadistic parents who figure in two of Katurian’s most bleak stories. Dana Lockhart appears as the Girl, who brings with her a moment of sweetness and redemption we desperately need near the play’s end.

Director Bradley Hamilton manages to let the dark humor of this drama stay afloat along the surface of McDonagh’s deep, swirling script. He is supported in this inaugural show by Producer Paul Stark, the Artistic and Managing Director of Monster Box Theatre. Sofie Gerstler is the Stage Manager, Matthew Jarjosa handles Sound Design, and actress Jenna Kellie Pittman doubles as Fight Choreographer and Fight Captain.

This production of The Pillowman is calculated to shock, unsettle and seduce the audience into considering ideas we might rather avoid. It pokes a bony finger into the sleeping eyeball of artistic complacency. The 2-hour-plus length, the F-word-pocked dialog, the language, adult themes and violence of the show make it unsuitable for children and adults who dislike having their comfort zones jostled. Sophisticated theatre enthusiasts, however, like thrill-seekers on a twisting roller coaster, will appreciate the emotionally wild ride.

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Week of 9/16/2019

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