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By Martin McDonagh
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
(left to right) Denis Arndt, Tom Story and Hugh Nees (Photo: Carol Pratt)
The Pillowman is a story about stories. Here’s how one of them goes:
…The father, as we have established, treats the little girl badly, and one day the girl gets some apples and carves some little men out of these apples, all little fingers, little eyes, little toes, and she gives them to her father but she says to him they’re not to be eaten, they’re to be kept as a memento of when his only little daughter was young, and naturally the pig of a father swallows a bunch of these applemen whole, just to spite her, and they have razor blades in them, and he dies in agony…
Why do we tell stories? Homer, Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare told stories which sang across the centuries, and created worlds more real and durable than the mundane Greece, Rome and England that surrounded them. Katurian K. Katurian (the ironically named Tom Story), who sweeps up at an abattoir for a living and who has had only one of his 400 gruesome little fairy tales published, writes for the same reason. The grim little bloodbaths he writes, in which children kill and are killed, are for him more real and true than the human zoo in which he lives.
Here’s another story:
Katurian K. Katurian sits blindfolded in a windowless room in the police headquarters of some unnamed hellhole. Suddenly, two cops – the cynical Tupolski (Denis Arndt) and the volatile Ariel (Hugh Nees) – burst into the room. They take off his blindfold and begin to hammer him with questions. But why? What has he done? Has he somehow offended the State, or the tinpot generalissimo who runs it? Why, he’ll rewrite everything! Take out the offending passages!
Despite his cravenness, Katurian engages our sympathy as an artist about to be tortured by a brutal arm of a brutal state, especially when we hear his brain-damaged brother Michal (Aaron Muñoz) screaming in the next room. Does it matter that what Katurian writes is not bold challenges to the State but, as Tupolski puts it, "101 Ways to Skewer a Fuckin’ Five Year Old"? Or – and this is the information which has the agitated policeman Ariel raining a tempest of threats on Katurian’s head – that someone is killing children in precisely the way Katurian described in his stories?
Here is Katurian’s – and McDonough’s – dirty little secret: writers long to have their stories leak out of their books, and become powerful in the real world. To write with enough skill to give the performative utterance – as Harriet Beecher Stowe did, when she helped to change history with her powerful novel. There was an Irish cult called the satirists (some scholars believe this to be the derivation of the present word) who were thought to be able to kill people by writing verse about them. Katurian – and by extension McDonough, who admits to identifying to some degree with his character – find themselves unwitting members of this club. When Katurian feels responsible for the killing, is it out of a sense of guilt – or hubris?
For a prisoner, Katurian shows a surprising amount of hubris. Evil fascinates him; McDonough implies that he believes writing about evil will make his stories permanent. "Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues/ We write in water," Shakespeare says in Henry VIII, and though Katurian’s stories merely sit in a drawer it is literally a matter of life and death to him that they be preserved.
I dasn’t tell you more about the plot, except that it is as delicate as a skyscraper made of spun glass and cotton candy. The narrative is given shape and detail by nine of Katurian’s stories, two of which are only sketched. One of Katurian’s stories – a preposterous tale, clearly the weakest of the bunch – gives the backstory; it is a measure of the gripping power of the overall narrative that we suspend disbelief to accept it. But other stories – including the title story and the story of an unusual gift which a poor boy got for sharing a sandwich – are as sad and moving as a viola concerto. At the end of the play, Tupolski tells a story of his own, which for all its artlessness packs a significant wallop.
(left to right) Hugh Nees and Denis Arndt (Photo: Carol Pratt
This play does not have a single, overriding emotional note, and it is a tribute to director Joy Zinoman and her cast – which also includes Julie Garner, Aaron Tone, Zachary Fadler and Meghan Fay, all of whom act out Katurian’s stories – that the play moves from suspense to farce to memory play and back to suspense without losing any of its authenticity. Arndt, as the top cop, and Muñoz, as Katurian’s dim brother, are particularly effective. Both have imbued their characters with great and convincing specificity, avoiding the possibility of cliché wherever it occurs. Nees, who in this role bears a passing physical resemblance to former Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, has a difficult emotional transition; he manages it convincingly, and without fuss.
The production, and particularly Debra Booth’s set, evidences Studio’s customary high technical values. Michael Gallant bathes the opening of the first and second act in some gorgeous, mood-setting original music; I would have bought the CD if it was on sale in the lobby.
This is virtuoso writing, and Studio has given it an extraordinary production, powerful, knowing and inventive. Brothers and sisters, lock your doors tonight.
The Pillowman continues Wednesdays through Sundays until April 22. Evening shows are at 8 pm, except for Sunday evening shows at 7 pm. Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2. There are also 8 p.m. shows on March 27, April 3, and April 17, all Tuesdays. Ticket prices range from $39 to $55. You may purchase tickets at 202.332.3300 or at the website, www.studiotheatre.org.
To remind us that fairy tales were not always the sanitized bedtime stories we watch on the Disney Channel, Studio will give a staged reading of some of the original stories (along with modern interpretations) on March 24 and 25 and March 31 and April 1, all at 5 p.m. Admission to the staged reading will be $5.