Pros:Rich in themes, powerfully performed
Cons:Grotesque, highly adult subject matter (which is actually a warning, not a criticism)
The Bottom Line: This is a play worth experiencing--one that is as unforgettable as it is difficult.
It's not all that unusual for me to cry during a show--whether it be on a screen or on a stage. But Peppermint Creek's The Pillowman marks the first time that the tears did not flow until after I'd reached home and the full impact of the story hit me.
The Pillowman is a play which, as the friend who accompanied me to the production said, you want to stop thinking about, but it won't let you. It may be one of the most powerful stories to be written for the stage for a long time.
It also helps that it is intensely and wonderfully directed by Chad Badgero. He even manages to find appropriate amounts of humor in this very dark script.
Martin McDonagh's play is set in a totalitarian society and opens in an interrogation room. A writer has been brought in and is being questioned because a series of gruesome child killings chillingly match short stories he has written. Many of the stories are read on stage throughout the play, showing the audience exactly how brilliant this horror writer is. This is underlined when another person's story is read and we see the sharp contrast in ability.
The play is rich with themes, new ones introduced with seemingly every dialogue exchange. It asks questions that are difficult to answer and McDonagh certainly doesn't make it easy to know what he thinks the right answers are. This richness makes it difficult to stop thinking about the play and certainly fulfills Peppermint Creek's mission of producing shows that will prompt people to think.
Two central themes are the responsibility of the artist for the audience's response and whether suffering is the price we pay for life.
Spencer Smith's portrayal of Michal captures the theme of suffering more than any other character. The relationship between him and his writer brother, Katurian--played equally well by James Ohngren--is so breathtaking that the end of the first act left the opening night audience glued to their seats as the lights came up.
Michal, we learn, is no longer right in the head because of things that were done to him as a child. His brother rescued him from his tormentors but was also an unwilling and unknowing participant in what was done to Michal. Regardless (or more likely because of this), there is an powerful love between the two of them. It's a love relationship you don't often see portrayed on stage with this degree of intensity and chemistry.
Smith manages to show Michal's physical twistedness and put the proper vehemence and volume in his voice without crossing over into grotesque stereotypes of people with disabilities. His consistency through several highly difficult scenes is astonishing.
Tod Humphrey and Doak Bloss also manage to find intricate shading in the characters of the two interrogators. Humphrey's Ariel fools you into thinking he is nothing but the tough-guy bad cop, but Humphrey quickly fills in that outline with shades of motivation that take on different meanings before the audience's eyes.
Bloss also ably peeled back layers of his Tupolski, revealing surprising depth and motivations. He portrayed several absurdities while convincing us that he took himself seriously. Especially poignant was the moment in which he revealed why he might have a small bit of sympathy toward Katurian, sympathy that is dashed when he believes Katurian's credibility is compromised. On one level, he wants Katurian's stories to be true. As a detective and a father, he already knows that there is suffering and horror in the world. Katurian's Pillowman story holds out hope and comfort to him that perhaps we aren't as alone as we think and that perhaps there are reasons beyond our understanding for losses that otherwise feel senseless. Once that comfort is pulled out from under Tupolski, he lashes out in a furor.
In a play that contains much that is grotesque and heavy, the roles of the two children (if you can call young teens children) can be especially challenging. How anyone can work on this play for weeks at a time and not suffer recurring nightmares is beyond me--and that would be true for adults as well as children. Emerson Hendry played the part of the boy, capturing an innocence and horror.
Julie Jones, a 7th grader who is a cheerleader and soccer player off stage, has some of the heaviest and most challenging scenes placed on her shoulders. She plays it to spooky perfection, once again leaving the audience gasping for air.
One of her scenes in particular raises this production to a new level. She pantomimes a girl who wants to be Jesus while Katurian narrates. Many theater companies today would choose to go satirical with this scene, making the easy choice of blaming religion for a myriad of evils. Peppermint Creek, however, treats religion with respect even in this very difficult scene. In doing so, they reveal yet another theme of this play, one which suggests that sometimes life's greatest horrors can be an answer to prayer in a twisted sort of way.
Throughout the play there are examples of prayers being answered in unexpected ways. However, they are answers that seem cruel and horrid to anyone except the person whose prayers are being answered.
The bulk of the play rests on Ohngren and he mines the script for all that it is worth. He forces us to ask difficult questions: Does our suffering serve a purpose? Is there a reason that horrible things happen? Would the world be even worse off if no one experienced pain? Which is more important: an artistic legacy or the life and comfort of an individual? Is it acceptable to make someone else sacrifice so that something great can be created? Is it the end that makes a journey either worthwhile or worthless?
Anyone who reads the newspaper knows that nightmares do come true and are coming true every day around the world. We don't want to believe that people would gleefully torture another human being. We don't want to believe that people have it in them to torture, maim, and kill children. How can we protect our souls if we believe such things? Yet, such things appear daily in the headlines. The Pillowman suggests that we look at these issues and find a way to preserve our soul.
It can be a difficult play to watch and I don't think I could handle seeing it more than once. But I would strongly, strongly recommend to anyone that they should see it once. It asks too many good questions in an unforgettable manner in a production that is about as flawless as you can get.
Treat yourself to this experience and you'll come away knowing why theater is still an unmatched medium for intense, powerful experiences that can provide endless hours of discussion and contemplation.
The Pillowman runs for one more weekend, Oct. 12-14 at Hannah Community Center in East Lansing, Michigan. Tickets are $15 ($8 for students and seniors). Show times are 8 p.m.
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