Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman
Won't Put You To Sleep

Also see Richard's review of Three Seconds in the Key and Frozen

Matthew Maher and Erik Lochtefeld
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting Martin McDonagh's penetrating, unsettling play The Pillowman at their Thrust Theatre though February 25. As the New York Times said, "Comedies don't come any blacker then this." I am a big fan of this Irish playwright; I've seen his Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Skull of Connemara and Lieutenant of Inishmore and I have been thrilled by each of his works. This is a mesmerizing production, with four incredible actors who keep you on edge throughout the two hour and forty-five minute period.

The comedy-drama premiered at the National's Cottesloe Theatre in 2003 where it became a smash hit, winning the Olivier Award for Best Play in 2004. The original cast included three of Britain's top flight actors Jim Broadbent, Adam Godley and David Tennant. American audiences first saw the play in 2005 at the Booth Theatre with Billy Crudup, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Stuhlbarg and Zeljko Ivanek. It received a Tony nomination for Best Play and the Drama Desk award for Outstanding New Play. One of the most amazing facts about this prolific writer is that he wrote all of his plays in 1994. He has written no new plays since then and is now involved in films. He is currently directing a romantic comedy where hardly anyone gets murdered at all.

Berkeley Repertory's production, under the inspired direction of Les Waters, is a mind-blowing experience. McDonagh takes us to an unnamed county, probably during Communist domination. The playwright has created a Kafkaesque world in this inventive drama. The subject is clear: there is a dangerous power in literature.

Katurian K. Katurian (Erik Lochtefeld) is a writer who has been arrested by the police in this totalitarian state. His short stories are violent fairy tales that are full of blameless and irritating children meeting horrendous deaths. The stories bears a resemblance to three current murder cases, but the writer empathically denies knowing anything about the killings. The police have also arrested his mentally impaired brother Michal (Matthew Maher), who may or may not have committed the crimes.

Katurian is interrogated by good cop Tupolski (Tony Amendola) and bad cop Ariel (Andy Murray). Violence is part of the cross-examination method. Katurian is beaten, and he can hear Michal's screams from a nearby cell. The second scene is a fantastic one showcasing McDonagh's brilliant writing, as we are shown the bizarre didactic experiment these two brothers were subjected to as children by their parents, which helps to explain Katurian's dark and twisted writings.

Some of his stories come into play as the actors describe what happens to poor unfortunate children. The most audacious story comes in the second act. "The Little Jesus" is played out with Mother (Nancy Carlin) and Father (Howard Swain) and their little daughter (Brigette Lundy-Paine). The outrageously funny anti-parable concerns a little girl who is convinced she is the second coming of Christ and the extreme measures that are used to dissuade her. There is also a story that is a central part of this invigorating drama, about a nine foot tall Pillowman who has pillow legs and body with a round pillow for a head with a smiling face.

Erik Lochtefeld (The Glass Menagerie) gives a splendid performance as Katurian. He plays the role as a complicated person who can be deeply compassionate yet luckless, gutless, hopeless and very nervous when being interrogated. Matthew Maher (New York Richard III, Coriolanus) is superb as Michal and he captures the brain damaged figure's innocence. His childlike speech patterns are amazing.

Two of the most intriguing characters are wonderfully realized by Tony Amendola (many roles at the Rep including Twelfth Night, American Buffalo) as Tupolski and Andy Murray (Edward II, The Gamester, The Rivals at ACT) as bad cop Ariel. Each also has his own story to tell. As Tupolski says, "Ariel is the cop and I am the detective." Amendola is also hilarious when he tells the story of a Chinese deaf mute boy and an oncoming train. Andy Murray plays Ariel as a brash, edgy, irritated person prone to violence. However, he also offers a compassionate side to the character.

Nancy Carlin and Howard Swain give hilarious performances as the ludicrously appalling parents. Brigette Lundy-Paine gives a nice performance as the mute little "green girl" while Brendan Reilly is effective in his single frightening scene.

Les Water directs the production with sharp, violent and smooth flowing scenes, yet he gives us comic touches to enliven our feelings. Antje Ellermann has designed an almost bare stage with just table and chairs to intensify the acting of the characters. Obadiah Eaves has written a motivated score to give extreme realism to the performances.

The Pillowman is unlike anything you have ever seen, and it is a breathtaking twisted night in the theatre.

The Pillowman has been extended through March 11 at Berkeley Repertory Thrust Stage located at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets 510-647-2949 or simply go to

Their next production will be the world premiere of To the Lighthouse, based on Virginia Woolf's landmark novel. It opens on February 23rd and runs through March 25th.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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