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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Pillowman
Theatre Coup d'Etat
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Guys and Dolls, Five Presidents and Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant


James Napoleon Stone, Corey DiNardo
and Tyler Stamm

Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey
The central character in Martin Donagh's bracingly dark play The Pillowman is a writer named Katurian. He writes stories in the manner of fairy tales, chock full of macabre incidents that quite often involve children, and tend to end on an ironic and chilling note. In one of these, a fanciful character called the Pillowman postulates the advantage of children who are destined to a life of pain and misery being told what awaits them so that they can take their own lives early on rather than bear the agony that lies ahead. Is this not a kindness to those children and the adults they would have become? But, if, along with their suffering, these same children are destined also to do some good in the world, what then? This question is one of several dark probes fired off in The Pillowman, being given a searing production by Theater Coup D'Etat.

McDonagh has written a string of ten plays (including one never yet produced), the first six of which were set in County Galway, Ireland, where the writer grew up. The first of these, The Beauty Queen of Leenane premiered in 1996. In 2004 The Pillowman was his first produced play not set in his familiar home turf, but in an unspecified totalitarian state where "justice" is administered with a quick and blunt stroke, offering an environment that, without cultural context, is both universal and icily grim. Katurian has been arrested, without being told why. He is soon being questioned and tormented by "good cop" detective Tupolski and "bad cop" Ariel.

Obliquely, Katurian realizes that he is charged with recent murders of young children that precisely mirror the deaths of children in his stories. Whether Katurian killed the children or his perverse fictions inspired others to do so, either way he is guilty. Katurian protests vehemently, swearing that he never harmed any child and that his creations are just stories, not intended to be taken to heart. Then he hears the cries of a man being tortured in the next room, a voice he recognizes as his brother Michal. Though Michal is older than Katurian, he is brain-injured, and Katurian has devoted himself to taking care of his big brother, who is accused of being the writer's accomplice.

Katurian realizes now that is fate as well as Michal's are tied together, in the hands of state-defined justice that offers no possibility of innocence to those who are charged. Not only their lives are at stake, but the future of Katurian's collection of stories—his life's work—hang in the balance. It is one thing to consider the end of his own days on earth, and another to know that everything he created in his lifetime could be tossed into a fire pit, gone forever, as if he never had lived at all.

This is not a play for the squeamish. Katurian's stories—several of which he relates in the course of the play—are disturbing enough, and the harsh treatment of the prisoners is viscerally depicted. We also discover the abusive histories of the captors, dark secrets that help to explain Tupolski's morbidly calm demeanor in the face of brutality, and why Ariel's volatile temper is always set to boil.

Director Rich Remedios has staged The Pillowman in very intimate quarters in the lower level of Springhouse Ministry Center, whose light, airy upper gathering space offered a very different environment for their production of The Tempest last fall. The audience is imposed so closely upon the writer, his child-like brother, and their tormentors, we instinctively steel ourselves against slipping into the cauldron of morbid imagination and reflexive violence at our feet. We are near enough to hear Katurian's quickened breath as he administers an act of mercy, the yearning in Ariel's eyes as he pleads for Tupolski to, for once, allow feelings to enter his judgment, and see calm descend over Michal's face as he lies his head in his brother's lap to be told a favorite story once again. It is a production that sends chills down the spine from the first moment to the last.

Corey DiNardo gives a riveting performance as Katurian, whose life is at the core of The Pillowman. He starts with forced optimism, wanting to believe that his arrest stems from a misunderstanding, which he is wholly willing to resolve. His descent into shock at the charges against him, horror at having his beloved brother involved, and finally, desperation in seeking any way possible to assure that his work will outlive him, is gripping, causing us to see the upending of justice through his eyes. Song Kim is sweetly naive as Michal, whose sense of right and wrong is based on his limited, if pragmatic, understanding of his world. The two play off each other well as brothers with a co-dependency that is deeply touching.

James Napoleon Stone embeds seething passion in his portrayal of Ariel, so filled with hate for anyone who would harm a child that he can barely restrain his own violent nature, yet makes a fully convincing turn when truth manages to seep into his mind, drawing on unexpected yet authentic well of sympathy. Tyler Stamm portrays Tupolski with an intimidating blend of arrogance, sinister intent, and playing by the rules—rules he makes as he sees fit. He is more temperate than his partner Ariel, but his dispassionate nature proves to be a danger in itself.

Some of the stories Katurian tells are illustrated with shadow puppets presented behind the abstracted painted backdrop in shades of brown and rust that resembles an assortment of fairy-tale figures tossed into a chaotic maelstrom. The set design, which is the work of Tyler Stamm, along with Mark Kiefer's lighting and Matt Clarke's sound design work in concert to create and maintain the untethered feel of suspense, which manages to maintain itself across the intermission between acts. Chelsea Wren Hanvy designed an apt costume for each character, and violence director Adam Scarpello has ensured that the rough action on stage feels quite authentic.

The Pillowman is relentlessly dark, though gallows humor is laced throughout the play to provide emotional ventilation. It asks challenging questions, about the responsibility artists have for the way audiences respond to their work; about the urgency of defending one's legacy on earth, even to the death; about the morality of taking action against unspeakable wrongdoing when that action itself becomes unspeakable; and about the logic of the Pillowman, that it would be better to spare those who are destined to suffer from what lies ahead. All of this is presented in the framework of a totalitarian society where your own answers are immaterial to the judgments made by the those with power. Not your light summer-theater fare, but well worth the dive into deep water. Theatre Coup d'Etat gives the play a staging that is thrilling both in theatrical and intellectual terms.

Theatre Coup d'Etat's The Pillowman, through July 20, 2019, at Springhouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $18.00 to $40.00 on a sliding scale. For more information about this production and Theatre Coup d'Etat, visit www.theatrecoupdetat.com.

Playwright: Martin McDonagh; Director: Rich Remedios; Set Design: Tyler Stamm; Costume Design: Chelsea Wren Hanvy; Light Design: Mark Kieffer; Sound Design: Matt Clarke; Violence Director: Adam Scarpello; Assistant Director and Stage Manager: Alexandra Pozniak; Producer: James Napoleon Stone.

Cast: Meghan Gobler (girl), Corey DiNardo (Katurian), Song Kim (Michal), Tyler Stamm (Tupolski), James Napoleon Stone (Ariel).


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