Reviewed by Will Stackman
The ten plays turned out by Anglo/Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in the mid-90s divide into three trilogies set in rural Ireland, with plots revolving around violence, domestic and otherwise. The odd play out, "The Pillowman," which added another Tony award to the writer's collection of honors is set in a totalitarian state, possibly Slavic. This Absurdist fable suggests that McDonagh had qualms about his penchant for telling grisly stories involving damaged characters with psychic traumas derived form dysfunctional family lives. This time, by naming his primary character "Katurian Katurian Katurian" a literary "K" enters the equation. But that's only a starting point, for Kafka's neurotic and decaying Austrio-Hungarian empire is replaced here by a merciless modern post-Orwellian totalitarian state and the horrors under scrutiny are much more lurid than Josef K's possible misdeeds. And although Katurian is ready to the death to defend his stories, these gruesome screeds get no further justification than that he wrote them.
Katurian is played honestly and directly by award winning actor and playwright John Kuntz. Pitted against his almost colorless Anyman are two warped detectives with equally impressive credentials; Steven Barkhimer as Tupolski, self-identified as a vicious alcoholic, nominally the "good" cop, and Phillip Patrone, back from an acting hiatus as Ariel, the unstable "bad" cop, fond of torture and violence. At first their suspicions of him seem based solely on his distasteful and unpublished stories, which he describes as downbeat fairy tales. Two children have been murdered in peculiar ways matching two of his stories; a third is missing. But as circumstances unfold and his retarded older brother, Michal, played with uncanny skill by Bradley Thoennes enters the action, the possibilities become grimmer and seemingly predictable. Those who've seen several of McDonagh's other works will know better, however. Director Rick Lombardo insures that all the clues are there.
A number of Katurian's stories are told during the play, especially "The Pillowman." A few are also acted out by two parents and a child, on a raised stage behind the mirrors backing the set, Mother in several incarnations is done by New Rep regular, Rachel Harker, while Father is played by Stephen Cooper, a Wellesley Summer Theatre veteran. The Boy is Mathew Scott Robinson, central to "The Writer and His Brother," which may explain Katurian's style and Michal's madness. The Girl, who appears in "The Little Jesus Girl," played by Rebecca Stevens, is essential the denouement of the play. A fascination with the grotesque is perhaps what draws the audience to this sordid and possibly pedestrian play, particularly the fable of the Pillowman, a fantasy figure who convinces children to commit suicide so they won't grow up to lead horrible lives.
The dialogue for this long two act play seems slightly distant, as if it might have been translated from some other language. Moreover, the storytelling is suggestive of a novel rather than a drama. But in the hands of skilled actors it becomes eerily alive. In this production the set contributes to the sense of an alternate reality. John Howell Hood has created a massive interrogation room all steel and smudged concrete backed by a wall of mirrors, which besides reflecting the action and about half the audience also, when scene behind are lit, reveal the pantomime illustrations of the stories. IRNE winner John R. Malinowski's lighting gives a harsh reality to the downstage cell and a mysterious glow to the backscenes, which also have projected backgrounds by Hood. Major transitions have original music composed by Haddon Givens Kime who's now working out of Atlanta, but still collaborating with Lombardo over the Internet. Once again, costumer Frances Nelson McSherry not only provides suitable outre clothes for the fairytale characters but matches the realistic street garb for the four principals actors. The New Rep's production efforts remain among the best in town; the minions in black moving furniture were hardly visible.