Martin’s McDonagh’s The Pillowman is a blend of anti-totalitarian agitprop, surreal Kafkaesque narrative, and ripped-from-the-headlines crime story. Thematically and structurally, the play is a challenge to stage. Wendy Knox and Frank Theater’s production at the Guthrie is both compelling and uneven.
The Pillowman runs through October 14 at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio.
Set in some vaguely Cold War Eastern Bloc state, the play opens on an interrogation room and three men. With forward leaning doorways and an industrial superstructure, the room is claustrophobic. The two interrogators, in their riveting good cop/bad cop routine, only accentuate the threat. Ariel (Chris Carlson) is rangy and manic, given to explosions of anger and violence. Tupolski (Luverne Seifert) is steady, playing the cool foil with menace. The doors at each side of the stage only disturb the mid-century totalitarian milieu, their vertical slides and sound effects suggesting Plan 9 from Outer Space more than The Lives of Others.
The suspect is nervous Katurian (Jim Lichtseidl), a writer of disturbing stories that feature child torture and murder. He doesn’t know why he has been taken in custody. Ariel and Tupolski question Katurian, using his stories as fodder for their interrogation. They reveal that they have also arrested Katurian’s developmentally challenged brother, Michal, using him as leverage to get Katurian to talk. About what Katurian is at a loss.
The first act moves with a sure restraint punctuated only intermittently with disruptive attempts at comedy. Like engaging film noir, the dialogue is tight and tense. Seifert is pitch perfect as Tupolski. The second act is less coherent.
The pantomime of Katurian’s stories on the upper stage behind transparent panels is effective. The stories themselves, particularly that which chronicles his parents’ treatment of Michal, is improbable and a strain on a play that relies on the credibility of a totalitarian regime and censorship. Grant Richey, a talented actor, is either miscast or misdirected as Michal. His Michal undercuts the tension of the play. His Michal seems alternatively dangerous and capable, and innocent and affected. The landscape of the character is inconsistent and confusing.
The production is nevertheless thought provoking. From censorship to torture, the position of art to the sanctity of childhood, The Pillowman provides plenty of food for thought and argument.
Michael Opperman is a local writer. His work has recently been published in the Coe Review, New Hampshire Review and Rain Taxi.