What would you do to preserve your life’s work?
How would you save someone from an abusive relationship?
Would you tolerate or love a developmentally delayed sibling?
How does it feel to be falsely accused and convicted?
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh answers such questions in The Pillowman, a three-act drama making its New Orleans premiere (August 8, 2007) thanks to the perseverance of DEM BOYS Productions in association with Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. Director Dane Rhodes brings McDonagh’s vulgarity-filled succinct words to light in an intriguing, puzzling and strikingly disturbing production likely to cause a nightmare or two.
Unless you enjoy blood, torture, child abuse, and totalitarianism, The Pillowman is not an entertaining evening away from television. It will envigorate your brain cells with puzzling situations and bizarre scenarios that are just a touch too close to many of today’s sensational crimes.
Through action—packed scenes and story-telling monologues, The Pillowman presents a terror-filled day in the life of want-to-be writer Katurian (Blake Balu) and his seemingly slow brother Michal (Leon Contavesprie). Accused of child-killing by an anything goes police state, Katurian pleads innocence throughout a bloody interrogation, continually asking “What have I done?” Unfortunately, the police are among the few to have read his short stories, linking his child-abuse scenarios to authentic crime scenes. Michal becomes an effective pawn in a game of execution with no trial as Katurian tries to protect his brother and his stories.
Rhodes directs a small cast with an up-and-down pace and precision fitting for a troubling plot. That’s troubling, not troubled. If you care to empower those brain cells, you will more than appreciate this talented director’s interpretation of diverse issues ranging from mental and physical abuse to justice for none. Just as Katurian explains his short stories have “twists,” Rhodes appropriately distorts and moves the action along. You think you’ve got it, you think you know which way the story is heading and then something changes. The Pillowman teases the imagination in an uncomfortable, but intended manner with little pause to catch your beath.
Before you even take your seat in the audience, you are uneasily drawn into DEM BOYS production. A fog-filled zig-zag set comprised of ramps and furniture hanging at odd angles is disorienting and dream-like. Set and lighting by Josh Palmer and Chad Talkington enhance confusion, anxiety and Katurian’s escalating fear.
Blake Balu’s performance as Katurian is inspirational. Whether you only enjoy light-hearted comedies and are dragged to this performance by someone else, or you appreciate McDonagh’s talent, you can’t resist kudos for Balu’s work. On stage throughout a very long play, he depicts a gamut of believeable emotions with a fine balance from absolute fear to defeat. His transitions from actor to narrator are extremely well done. When it is time for the character to tell a story, he does so in manner and tone any parent would use in telling a bed-time tale to his or her children.
Leon Contavesprie makes the word “creepy” come to life in his portrayal of the disadvantaged, developmentally delayed Michal. Morphing from the naïve child to avenging, angry adult, he leads the audience through more emotional peaks and valleys. Are you empathetic with his situation? Disgusted by his actions? Appalled that he might betray his brother and protector? Contavesprie brings you to the point of indecisiveness over and over again. While Dr. Jekyl went through a physical transformation to Mr.Hyde, it only takes Contavesprie’s Michal a turn of the head or roll of the eye to present conflicting personalities.
In their roles as detectives Tupolski and Ariel, Robert Pavlovich and Bob Scully, respectively, are convincingly despicable in their contempt for Katurian and his crimes – of course, they have pre-judged him as guilty – and their mockery of his writings. Pavlovich, who adds a bit of comedy relief from time to time with a quick change of expression, shines as he tells one of his Tupolski’s stories about a little deaf Chinese boy walking along the railroad tracks. Scully takes his turn in the spotlight as torturing master, raising his voice and using his body effectively without overacting. Both Pavlovich and Scully raise thoughts of the baddest cop you’ve ever encountered. Each has a moment or two of softness, however, and they are quite adept at mastering the roller coaster emotional display so important to this production.
Supporting actors Angie Joachim (Mother), T.J. Toups (Father) and Samantha Evers (Girl) have limited on-stage time. Each does a good job, however, and are especially mesmorizing in depicting Katorian’s “Little Jesus” chilling story. Although she looked a tad nervous on opening night, eight-year-old Evers is sure to have a bright on-stage future and an interesting resumé with a McDonagh play to her credit.
The Pillowman is not only a long play, but it is physically and mentally draining. It’s not necessary to know anything about the plot before you buy a ticket. But it may help you to decide who to bring with you – don’t bring someone who will be offended by cursing every few seconds, or who just wants to relax after a work day, for example. If you’re lily-livered or don’t enjoy the provocative, this is not the show for you.
Back Row Facts:
Length of Play: Three hours including two, 10-minute intermissions.
Language and Lewd Factor – lots of vulgar language and vivid descriptions of crimes involving children.
Family fitness - absolutely not a family show unless you are the classic example of a dysfunctional family.
It’s a puzzlement! I am truly getting to be an old fuddy-duddy, but I am really getting tired of hearing the f-word over and over and over. It’s not necessary to move the story along.