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It’s hard for a stage drama to be terrifying. Terrifying isn’t just a matter of – gotcha! – jolting an audience with cheap surprises. It’s not gruesome violence, either. Splatter films and TV-drama autopsies have achieved a bacterial level of bloodshed that live theater couldn’t hope to match.
No, by terrifying I mean a truly horrific view of the world, of human life. And that, theater can offer. It’s easy enough to say life is appalling, of course. But when a playwright says it through a powerhouse little drama, a gripping and morbidly funny piece of theater, and when a stage company presents all this with conviction and care — you get Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman as presented by Kitchen Dog Theater.
We’re in a jail cell in a police state somewhere. A writer named Katurian has been dragged in for interrogation. The sadistic abuse that appears in his stories has been mirrored in several recent child murders. What’s worse, Katurian’s older brother, the one he’s always looked out for, is mentally impaired. And he’s in the jail cell next door — screaming. The police figure they can always torture him into confessing.
The Pillowman is typical of McDonagh’s work in its shock tactics. The play is compelling as just a straight-up, suspenseful, stage thriller. Put a gun to a prisoner’s head, and I don’t know about you, but I’d probably want to see how things turn out.
But it’s more than just suspense. The two cops are like hilarious, David Mamet characters. Their rapid-fire patter is a hostile comedy routine, a comedy routine of beatings and intimidation. At one point, the lead officer tells Katurian that they’re looking forward to his confessing to the murders. His brother is going to be executed, no doubt. But the government really looks forward to executing a writer. Executing a writer sends out a signal.
LESON: “I don’t know what kind of signal it sends out, that’s not really my area. No, I know what kind of signal it sends! It sends out the signal – Don’t. Go. Around. Killing. Little. Kids.”
Pity and terror. Aristotle tells us that drama operates on an audience’s feelings of pity and terror. We identify with the troubles of the characters on stage, we pity them, and we dread what might happen to them — and us. The Pillowman isn’t so much a tragedy as it is an evil folk tale. It’s a folk tale about the sources of artistic creativity, the possibly dark and awful sources. And it’s about the responsibilities of the storyteller. More than that, it sees all our relationships – parent and child, police and suspect – as ones of power and pain.
As the lead cop, Ian Leson has become a master of poker-faced comedy and simmering resentment. He and Lee Trull as Katurian are a superb match, with Trull all pleading eyes and rubbery fear. On the other hand, Michael Federico as the second cop and Cameron Cobb as Katurian’s brother are both too actor-y, although in his defense, Cobb has a particularly tricky (or inconsistently written) role to pull off: At convenient moments, McDonagh has the mentally damaged brother suddenly pop off with sharp-minded insights, sharply expressed.
The Pillowman opens Kitchen Dog’s 18th season in bold fashion. From Bryan Wofford’s metal set (it’s like a submarine bulkhead) to Heath Gage’s wistful music, the production has been smartly directed by Jonathan Taylor and Christina Vela. Their one serious oversight is in staging Katurian’s stories as comical little children’s shows with any violence done up cartoon-style. No, the senseless viciousness here — as we learn — is the senseless viciousness that triggers everything else in the play, and the directors missed a real opportunity to ratchet up the horror.
That’s right. My only real reservation about Kitchen Dog’s The Pillowman is … that it should be even more terrifying.