After seeing The Pillowman, the latest offering from William Peace University’s Dramatic Irony drama club, we felt sick and wanted to throw up … but in a good way! No, wait! Give us a chance to explain! How else do you describe the feelings evoked by a thoroughly provocative play that centers on an author writing shocking stories about the inexplicable cruelty, unprovoked maiming, and horrific torture of innocent children? An author whose writings may have inspired similar horrors in real life? How, indeed?
And yet this thrilling 2005 Tony Award®-winning play by Martin McDonagh takes the theme of gratuitous violence in art and life and turns it on its head, leaving the audience shocked and riveted (and mildly sick, but in an “oh my god I can’t take my eyes off this shockingly engrossing scene”-kind of way). And how else do you describe it when that feeling is doubled by the horrifyingly real portrayal of really horrifying characters?
The play takes place entirely within the confines of a couple of nondescript police interrogation rooms in a totalitarian world — a world in which a finding of guilt by the police means you get executed on the spot. The audience removed from reality, but just so much.
With the police brutality in the news and with shows such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer casting a pall on our authorities and on our judicial system, the play gains an extra layer of meaning. Here we watch the police acting as judge, jury, and executioner. And yet the play touches on so many other powerful themes, such as suffering and redemption, right and wrong, secrets and lies.
The set consists of a small table and chairs center stage. Behind them is a mildly ominous tarp, stretched taut, that bears faint hand prints and scratches. Is that a child’s handprint we see? Upon this canvas, an author’s tales will be told using shadow and light, creating a hazy tableau. And eerie music emphasizes the creepy feeling present in these scenes as well as throughout the show. Director Rachel Pottern Nunn has made some solid choices in the staging and the pacing, and the action plows forward inexorably.
As we watch, two police officers, Ariel (played with abandon by Mary Lynn Bain) and Tupolski (portrayed by Cal Bumgardner as a nice but not-so-nice “good cop”), are interrogating Katurian (played as a very earnest author by Spencer Nunn). This author has written a series of extremely disturbing and ultraviolent stories that feature the torture and death of children — stories that seem to have led to copycat killings in the area.
Soon, we are graced by readings of some of Katurian’s horrific tales, and we realize that they as terrific as they are horrific. Who would else write these dark stories other than someone with a dark heart?
As the drama unfolds, we learn that Katurian’s own backstory is just as horrifying as the stories that he writes. The police are determined to prove that Katurian and Michal (his special-needs brother, presented as just-slow-enough by Mitchell Mulkey) are killing the children. Yet, in trying to elicit a confession, the police use torture and deception in their own stories to trick the brothers into confessing to the crimes.
This play is not for children. Even some adults will blush at the themes and the language. Long after the curtain falls, you will be asking yourself questions about the ends justifying the means, about an artist’s right to create art, despite the unpopularity of the message, about life imitating art (imitating life …), about the suffering inherent in creating, about right and wrong, and about judging a book by its cover.
More than anything else, this gripping play is about storytelling — the stories we tell to ourselves as well as to each other. It’s also about knowing each other and knowing ourselves. As the “truth” changes (and then changes again), each successive shock brings with it many more questions than answers. As Katurian says at one point, “It’s a puzzle without a solution.” And speaking of puzzles: who is the “pillowman?” And what does he represent?
Our hats are off, by the way, to the sound and lighting designers who augmented the action with appropriate, subtly changing media. We were especially impressed by the original music composed by Josh Walker. Likewise, we salute the direction and the performers of the shadow-plays.
Supporting cast members Kelsey Bledsoe, Cheyenne Morris, and Rosemary Richards perform in the shadow plays but not “in the shadow” of the main characters.
Among the strengths in this production is the contrast between the two cops. Mary Lynn Bain very adeptly serves up a blend of “loose cannon” and “runaway train” for her plow-forward, take-no-prisoners Ariel, looking very much like a predator cornering its prey as she menacingly stalks back and forth behind Katurian, fixing on him a stare so intense we almost expected him to melt. Cal Bumgardner, on the other hand, gives us a seemingly-laid-back but ever-ready-to-strike Tupolski. Two kinds of ominous!
Every bit as strong is the bond that Mitchell Mulkey and Spencer Nunn display between the two brothers. We easily believe the sacrifices that the two make for each other.
From The Department of Picky-Picky: (1) Early in the first scene, there were some lines lost as they were drowned out by some rather loud stage business. We suspect that tweaking the timing just a bit will smooth that over. (2) Seating Katurian so low when he is at his typewriter makes it hard to light his face adequately. (3) Tupolski lights a “cigarette” at one point. Bumgardner does a good job of smoking ominously, but there is a logistical problem of how to dispose of it. (4) What happened to the toes? (You’ll see what we mean.)
We feel that it’s a shame that this show is only playing through Saturday. Clear your calendar, and make time tonight for this masterfully told story. And prepare to be undone.
William Peace University’s Dramatic Irony Drama Club presents THE PILLOWMAN at 8 p.m. March 25 in the Leggett Theater on the second floor of Main Building at William Peace University, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
TICKETS: $10 ($5 and Peace faculty/staff) suggestion donation. (NOTE: All proceeds will go to benefit Arts in Action NC, a local organization that provides dance and acting classes and workshops to local kids free of charge.)
INFORMATION: 919-508-2739 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Pillowman (2003 West End and 2005 Broadway drama): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=3682 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://decadenttheatrecompany.ie/the-pillowman/ (Decadent Theatre Company page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-pillowman-392092 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pillowman (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Martin McDonagh (Irish playwright and screenwriter): http://decadenttheatrecompany.ie/martin-mcdonagh/ (Decadent Theatre Company bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/martin-mcdonagh-7574 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1732981/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_McDonagh (Wikipedia).
Rachel Pottern Nunn (director): https://www.facebook.com/rachel.pottern (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.