I read Martin McDonagh's intense play The Pillowman years before I ever saw a live production of it. It was so different from any of the other McDonagh scripts I'd seen on stage (The Beauty Queen of Lenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore.) For one, it was not specifically an Irish setting, but rather in an unnamed totalitarian state. To call a story about torture and child killings "one of my favorites" might seem disturbing, but I have no reservations about labeling The Pillowman as such. It is so much more than its seemingly shocking premise, and the current production at Elmwood Playhouse in Nyack, New York, goes beyond the shocks, managing to both stun and enlighten.
During the Sunday matinee that I attended, the audience around me at times throughout the performance gasped at what they saw and heard. During intermission and after the curtain call, many of them animatedly chattered among themselves, debating the issues that the play had raised, sounding at times very much like the characters they had just witnessed, as they talked about the gruesome crimes that were committed, the differences between fiction and reality, the meaning of narrative plot points, the feelings that words created by the author could instill in an audience, and the different emotions and reactions that individuals could draw from the same exact material. It is evidence that theater can go beyond mere entertainment. In her program bio, the extremely talented director Debra Lee Failla rightfully thanked "Elmwood's Play Selection Committee and Board Members for taking bold steps and continuing their support of theater that challenges not only their artists, but their audiences as well."
In an age when the public has arguably become desensitized to stories about violence, when movies, television, and bestselling novels are inundated with gruesome tales of heinous crimes, when the headlines of newspapers and the details on newscasts retell horrendous actions that are often more dreadful than the fictionalized mayhem that writers' minds can conjure, the fact that The Pillowman is still able to deliver surprises and elicit laughs, shudders, and tears -- any deep emotional response at all -- is proof that McDonagh deserves all the accolades he has earned for it (including winning a Laurence Olivier Award and being nominated for a "Best Play" Tony Award).
Like the original Grimm fairytales (before they were sanitized for modern sensibilities), the stories within the story, although ghastly and chilling, are also profound and evocative. Despite the detained author's protestations that they don't "mean anything" on a deeper level, they actually do have interesting and often powerful subtext. The writer, Katurian, played by Tom Mazzarella, initially appears to have no idea why he is being interrogated by two sadistic law enforcers of the tyrannical state. (Those two are played to perfection by John Ade and Scott Nangle, by the way. Along with Neil Battinelli, who plays Katurian's "simple-minded" brother, who is also detained after a series of murders that mimic the short fables that Katurian has written, the cast does the enviable job of making these characters believable and at crucial times sympathetic.)
Like any great mystery, details are revealed bit by bit, raising more questions and providing more nail-biting thrills. Tableau scenes in the background (with actors Stacey Cretekos, Seth Ginsberg, Hannah Moore, Hailey Schwartz, and Matthew Quirk) illustrate some of the scenarios in Katurian's stories, providing the director and her crew the opportunity to flex their creative muscles. That crew pulls it off brilliantly -- scenic designer David Julin, lighting designer Mike Gnazzo, costume designer Shelagh Mayo, technical director Crawford Deyo, stage manager Allison Schneider, and co-producers Sandy Gordon and Marissa Abreu.
Given the sensational twists and turns of the story, one might ask of playwright Martin McDonagh the same question that's asked of the character Katurian, "What kind of sick mind would come up with this type of scenario?" Beneath the jolts, most of which are delivered through masterfully written and delivered words rather than gratuitous visuals, an audience will discover messages about artistic expression, about justice in a world where terrible atrocities occur (often incomprehensibly terrible), and about how each person brings his or her own experience and, yes, pain, to a situation, reacting to it differently through both emotion and action.
Stella Adler once said that "the word 'theater' comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation." Too often, playwrights (and audiences) prefer the familiar rather than the fresh, but McDonagh manages to weave a tale that takes his characters and audience members to unexpected destinations where they might still find those truths, familiar or otherwise.
The Pillowman continues its run at Elmwood Playhouse through April 5th. Seats are limited so reserve your tickets today.