Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

The Pillowman at ACT Theatre

Also see David's review of Wonderful Town

front to back: Matthew Floyd Miller, Shawn Telford
ACT Theatre leads off its 2006 season with a hot new title and darker than usual subject matter with the Seattle premiere of last season's Best play Tony nominee The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh (author of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara). The ACT production is respectable if not quite as compelling, urgent or successfully darkly comic Broadway version. And, though in a recent season ACT presented Edward Albee's possibly more disturbing (if more naturalistic) play The Goat, I think that The Pillowman, being more surreal and fragmented, will possibly polarize more ACT subscriber reactions than even Albee's comedy/drama of bestiality did. One first weekend audience member at the show I caught called it "the worst play I have ever seen."

Katurian, a writer of dark, bizarre short stories, is in police custody in what seems like a not too distant time and place. He doesn't know why he is being held but assumes it must have something to do with the fact that many of his stories involve children being killed and tortured. As the play unfolds, the two police detectives interrogating him reveal that someone is enacting his stories. Katurian's apparently mentally challenged brother Michal is also being held, and when Katurian fears Michal may be behind at least some if not all of the murders, he sets out to protect Michal as best he knows how at the act one climax. Act two holds revelations, character twists and even a bit of humanity to lighten the darkness.

The Pillowman will come across as highly unrealistic, neo-science fiction to many audience members. It is sometimes darkly comic, sometimes horrific, violent, and always shocking. It is also the best of McDonagh's plays I have seen to date. Kurt Beattie's direction is fluid and fast moving. In a generally quite capable cast, the clear standout is veteran and nationally known film, stage and TV actor Denis Arndt as Tupolski, one of the two detectives. Arndt gives an emotionally varied and thoughtful performance mixed with the casual brutality and brusqueness called for in the script. As his good cop/bad cop partner Seattle veteran actor R. Hamilton Wright plays well with Arndt, and successfully against the type of more amiable roles he is often cast in. Matthew Floyd Miller has a striking physical appearance that suits the Katurian character, and fares well as the play's narrator and protagonist. Shawn Telford, the weakest of the principal actors, is unfortunately cast in the play's most interesting role, that of Katurian's impaired brother Michal. A seeming new favorite player at ACT, Telford is marginally better than he was in the larger, title role in ACT's Vincent at Brixton last year, but his Michal is too surface and broadly drawn to be truly successful at capturing the quirkily sympathetic figure written by McDonagh. In pantomime roles as Katurian's parents and another parental unit from one of his stories, Ian Bell and Julie Briskman are customarily expert at their tasks.  As young Katurian, Joshua Froebe is assured and centered, and as a young girl in both the real world and in one of the stories Corinna Boettger is a staunch little trouper.

The amazing and creatively employed scenic design by Matthew Smucker makes exceptional use of ACT's challenging in-the-round Allen Theatre space, and Mary Louise Geiger creates a chilly yet not overly cold lighting design to accompany it. Marcia Dixcy Jory's costume design is starkly efficient, and composer Adam Stern and sound designer Dominic Cody Kramers create an aural atmosphere as appropriately otherworldly as the play itself.

The Pillowman runs through April 16 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, in downtown Seattle. Go online at for additional details, showtimes and ticket prices.

Photo: Chris Bennion

- David-Edward Hughes

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