Stage Review: The Pillowman – a cup best served black

For a cup of coffee to be really great I have always maintained it needs to be served black, allowing you to discover all its dark, rich, complex flavours.  I like my comedies the same way.  And so it was with the greatest of satisfaction that I sipped from the blackest of cups and savoured every drop at the Wild Geese Equity Coop production of The Pillowman on Saturday night.

At the center of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s play is Katurian K. Katurian (Aaron Hursh), a writer of some rather gruesome fairytales, described at one point as “101 ways to skewer a five-year-old”.  Although he has written some 400 stories, only one has been published and the mystery begins as the grisly murders of several children bear a striking resemblance to some of his unpublished tales.  Living in what is described as an “unnamed totalitarian dictatorship”, Katurian and his mentally challenged brother Michael (Ryan Biel) are summarily arrested by two detectives (Ashley O’Connel and Mike Wasko) who keep it no secret they are playing at good cop/bad cop.  From here secrets are revealed, real-life atrocities are confessed and Katurian’s shocking stories bring real meaning to art imitating life.

Ryan Biel and Aaron Hursh star in the Wild Geese Equity Co-op production of The Pillowman.  Photo by Michael Sider.
Ryan Biel and Aaron Hursh in the Wild Geese Equity Co-op production of The Pillowman. Photo by Michael Sider.

It is within Katurian’s stories that The Pillowman gets its greatest strength as playwright McDonagh explores the moral obligations that writers have to their words.  While McDonagh’s main focus here is on art, I was driven to think about the hate literature that still pervades our society, simultaneously contemplating the responsibility of the writer and the actions of those that may act upon it.  Where does that responsibility end for the writer?  It was an uncomfortable inner dialogue, made even more uncomfortable by the graphic nature of what I was witnessing on stage.

Both Hursh and Biel provide powerful performances with a palpable connection as siblings that have endured so much.  Hursh was mesmerizing and I found myself on the edge of my seat a number of times especially in his scenes reading Katurian’s stories.  Biel’s characterization of the challenged brother is done without affectation that could so easily have drifted in for someone playing a mentally challenged character; it is played simply, straightforward and with an intense innocence that I found it as frightening as any axe wielding murderer.  Ashley O’Connell was particularly successful in taking his role of good cop Tupolski beyond a simple stereotype and while Mike Wasko as his sidekick seemed to struggle a little, they both worked well as a team.

Director Stephen Drover directs the action at a breakneck speed especially during act one, leading us to the play’s particularly gruesome, although not unsurprising, first act ending.  In fact this is the biggest issue I had with The Pillowman in that act two seemed somewhat redundant as the cops try to place catch-up to everything we already know and we move much slower to the second, albeit more surprising ending.  Set designer Naomi Sider works in perfect tandem with lighting designer Darren Boquist bringing a childlike nightmarish quality to Katurian’s horrid tales and to the stark realities of the regime’s interrogation room, complete with dried blood on the floors.

This is not an easy show to watch and even 24 hours later it still lingers in my mind like a bad dream.  But I urge you, skip the latte and cappuccino knowing that, in this case at least, what they say is true: once you go black …

4 out of 5 Stars The Pillowman

By Martin McDonagh.  Directed by Stephen Drover.  A Wild Geese Equity Co-op production.  On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre through March 6, 2011.

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