Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman blends realism and shadow puppetry to bring its audience a horrific fairy tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm. Set in a pseudo-realistic interrogation room, McDonagh’s play (published in 2003) features a cast of four men - two detectives and two suspects – in the violent throes of a murder investigation. This is not a play for the squeamish or weak at heart; I’ll spare you the spoilers but be prepared for an uncomfortable evening. And yet, I found myself laughing through the tension more often than I imagine was appropriate. Though I question what the play itself adds to the greater theatrical conversation of 2019, I enjoyed this production. I flinched, I gasped, I recoiled, and I greatly appreciated the focus of the actors and the commitment of the creative team to presenting this play truthfully.
The Pillowman opens on a hooded man sitting alone on a stool center stage. In the audience’s view sits an ominous electrical device; the soundtrack is eerie industrial white noise. The man in the hood is Katurian (Corey DiNardo), a short-story author who is questioned about a few recent child murders in the community. Director Rich Remedios embraces the humor in the interrogation room trope, as two jaded detectives Tupolski (Tyler Stamm) and Ariel (James Napoleon Stone) inject comedy and cleverness into their task of pulling the truth from Katurian. We learn, through Sound Designer Matt Clarke’s chilling off-stage screams, that Katurian’s developmentally delayed brother Michal (Song Kim) is being held and interrogated in an adjacent room. As the truth about these murders surfaces, Katurian faces a deeply difficult decision. DiNardo, Stamm, Stone, and Kim are a strong ensemble, and each holds his own in moments of vulnerability. Stamm as detective Tupolski toes the line of the “good cop” with deft attention and penetrating eye contact. DiNardo brings an appropriate defenseless narcissism to a writer who clearly cares deeply for his brother, yet remains obsessed with his own legacy. The tension between the detectives and the suspect is palpable and more engaging than the last Law and Order episode you watched. As for the results of the investigation, I’ll leave the rest of the murder plot a mystery. Go see the show.
Technically, this production works well within its limits. Performed in the black-box theatre of the Springhouse Ministry Center basement, the audience is in close proximity. Adam Scarpello’s fight choreography strikes the perfect balance between cruel and intentional; the actors are able to execute and act the moves efficiently. Costuming by Chelsea Wren Hanvy contributes to the world of the play and takes blood well. Set Designer Tyler Stamm and Lighting Designer Mark Kieffer collaborate to create a backdrop that is unobtrusively mythic. The back wall contains a hidden scrim which transforms twice in the play to create a picture window for shadow play. During some longer speeches by Katurian, in which he recites two of his own short stories “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother” and “Little Jesus,” the scrim features a sort of hand-crafted slide show of artistically rendered silhouettes. Remedios’s decision to include these “breaks” transports the audience into the world of fantasy; we are all children being read bedtime stories (albeit terrifying ones). The concept proves so successful and visually interesting I only wish it was more fully incorporated into the production at other moments.
Through memorable performances, creative direction, and a strong technical showing, Theatre Coup d’Etat represents itself well in this production. But one overarching question remains: why this play now? In 2003 when The Pillowman was initially produced our nation was emerging out of the prosperous 90s and we needed to be reminded that we hadn’t solved the world’s problems. Social issues still plagued communities, authority corruption still permeated civic life. Now in 2019, do we need to be reminded? What new scope or context does this play provide us when we look at our own crises at the border, in our streets, and in the senate? I don’t doubt the ability of this script or this production to spark conversation on these topics, but while weaving in and out of these issues, the play lacks focus in its specific social commentary.
The construction of this play from a character perspective is problematic in 2019 as well. As a script, The Pillowman raises concerns about representation and inclusion. I caught myself returning to the thought of this play’s representation of developmentally delayed individuals and how it fits into a larger conversation about inclusion and identity in the arts. The Pillowman also shows its age in its portrayal of four cisgender men (and a brief cameo by a young girl: Meghan Gobler). Such narrow scope denies the audience the diversity of perspective we desperately need in today’s theatre. Early on in the play Katurian describes himself as NOT having “a political axe to grind” but does Theatre Coup d’Etat? Should we as a community of artists? The Pillowman has the potential to start a conversation we all need to have.See it for yourself and start the conversation; it plays at 7:30pm Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays through July 20th.