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The Pillowman

Theatre Review by Howard Miller


Brandon Walker, Logan Keeler, and John D'Arcangelo
Photo by Natasha Straley

If you are seeking a fun and creepy evening of Grand Guignol theater filled with blood and horror, you need look no further than The Seeing Place's revival of Martin McDonagh's darker-than-dark comedy The Pillowman, now at the Clarion Theatre.

The tight-knit company appears to be having a ball as the actors sink their teeth into carrying out McDonagh's credo, as espoused by one of his characters: "The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story." And what a story he has given us, replete with sadistic police, monstrous parents, and tortured children. It's as if the playwright has set out to outdo the likes of Shockheaded Peter or some of the more disturbing tales collected by the Brothers Grimm (e. g. "The Girl Without Hands").

The play opens in the interrogation room of a police station in a totalitarian society, where the blindfolded and handcuffed Katurian (Brandon Walker, who also co-directs with Erin Cronican) —his face all bloodied from the rough treatment he has been given —awaits an explanation as to why he has been brought in, wondering if it has anything to do with the rather repulsive stories he has been writing and submitting to various publications. One might be tempted to refer to the scene as "Kafka-esque" except for the fact that Katurian announces, "I don't go in for that sort of –esque stuff."

As it happens, his interrogators —Tupolski, the "good cop" (John D'Arcangelo) and Ariel, the brutal "bad cop" (Logan Keeler) —are very much interested in Katurian's stories about the gruesome murders of little children, because real children are being killed in much the same way as the stories describe. The play unfolds through the telling of stories within stories, including those of the young victims, the account of the "artistic experiment" by which Katurian and his mentally slow brother Michal (an excellent Daniel Michael Perez) were raised by their insufferably cruel parents, and the central tale of the title character, the gentle-hearted Pillowman who intervenes when lives are damaged beyond hope.

Fortunately for us, The Pillowman is not unrelentingly bleak. Instead, it offers up just enough sarcasm, gallows humor, irony, and snarky observations, divvied out at just the right times with just the right tone, so that we surprise ourselves by periodically laughing at the surrealistic absurdity of it all, the way we laughed nervously at the ghost stories we told each other as children. That surrealistic feel is nicely abetted by Mark Fingerhut's Dada-like projections and Mr. Walker's avant-garde sound design.

In the end, McDonagh manages to pull off a few surprises that make us (and even the merciless Ariel) rethink all of our previous certitude, and even though Katurian's fate was sealed the moment he was dragged into the station, he is perfectly willing to sacrifice everything —including the truth —for the sake of keeping his stories alive.


The Pillowman
Through December 20
The Seeing Place @ the Clarion Theater, 309 East 26th Street at 2nd Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix


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