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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

McDonagh's Brilliant The Pillowman Reinterpreted in New Jersey

Also see Bob's review of The Poetry of the Pizza

Scott Ferrara and
Daniel Oreskes

This George Street production proves beyond any doubt that Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's powerful and humorously macabre The Pillowman is one of the best new plays of the new century. This is not to say that it is a play for all tastes. Literalists without tolerance for the depiction of grisly mayhem inflicted on young children are advised to sit this one out, as are younger, more sensitive children.

Unlike the other McDonagh plays which have been produced stateside, The Pillowman does not appear to be set in Ireland. Although it could take place anywhere that an iron fisted dictator has granted limitless powers to its police, it suggests an eastern European dictatorship of the Soviet era to this viewer. Katurian, who has no idea that he may have committed any crime, has been brought blindfolded into a bare interrogation room where two detectives question him. It seems that a child has been murdered in a bizarre manner which mimics a story which Katurian has written.

It is here that I must stop. One of the great pleasures of The Pillowman lies in its ability to startle and surprise, and it would be unfair to deprive anyone of the pleasure of the discoveries which await on stage. The Will Frears directed George Street production takes a more comedic, less ominous approach to the play than last season's superlative Broadway mounting of John Crowley's National Theatre of Great Britain production. This reduces its raw, stinging power. However, the George Street production is largely well acted, slickly produced, and more clearly than ever illuminates the details of the story. Minus the fiercely overwhelming theatricality of the Broadway production, the extraordinary structure, dialogue and storytelling of McDonagh is always in the forefront.

Further analysis of the current production requires exploration into details best not known to the first time viewer. Director Will Frears has produced an interpretation that feels more straightforward and lighter than the NTGB production. At first, I was somewhat taken aback that a major theatre would deal so conventionally with such rarified material. This conventional approach can be seen in the manner that the "illustrated" stories of Katurian are presented. Rather than being shown in starkly lit cut out, comic book panels built high over the stage floor, sets are rolled out on the stage floor. These sets have a lighter, more open, less forbidding look, and the performances and ghoulish effects therein are less horrific. However, there is method in this seeming madness. By the second act, it is apparent that, by placing great emphasis on the script, Frears has actually clarified and illuminated the plot as well as the exceptional literary and theatrical quality of McDonagh's text.

Scott Ferrara is Katurian, the writer under siege. Ferrara conveys Katurian's sincerity and earnestness; most specially, this extends to the passion with which he places the survival of his writing over that of his being. Lee Sellars is Tupolski, the brain of the two man detective team. Sellars keeps Tupolski's cold, calculating intelligence sheathed until the play's climax. Daniel Oreskes is Ariel, the brawny, seemingly "bad cop." At first, he is frighteningly vicious. Then, as The Pillowman progresses, Oreskes nicely shades his portrayal. As a result, when his innate decency is revealed, we believe in it. Sellars and Oreskes make it clear that they are knowingly funny. There is a cruelty to their jocularity which makes their more overtly comic approach valid.

On the other hand, Michael Mastro fails to draw much sympathy as Michal, Katurian's mentally slow brother. Mastro's Michal comes across as willful and manipulative, when wounded and confused are what is needed to more strongly draw an audience's emotional attachment to both him and Katurian.

The essential theme here is the centrality of art and freedom of expression to the human spirit. Brilliant storyteller Martin McDonagh has found a richly theatrical frame which allows for a good deal of latitude in interpreting it.

The Pillowman continues performances (Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m./Sunday 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.) through March 19, 2006 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box office: 732-246-7717; online

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh; directed by Will Frears

Katurian…………..Scott Ferrara
Tupolski………………Lee Sellars
Ariel……………..Daniel Oreskes
Michal…………Michael Mastro
Father…………………Yuval Boim
Mother…………...Lena Kaminsky
Boy………..Robert Logan Kopp/ Lorin Matilsky
Girl….Kayla Nicolle Bolger/ Elizabeth Plevy

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell

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