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Creepy Brilliance 

The Pillowman is playwright Martin McDonagh at his best

Wednesday, Jan 31 2007
It would be nice to say that I couldn't care less about Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's defection to Hollywood. But that would be a lie. It's true that I wasn't all that bothered when I first heard that the author of two now-legendary contemporary play cycles set in rural Ireland ("The Leenane Trilogy," comprising The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West; and "The Aran Islands Trilogy," featuring "The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Banshees of Inisheer) had decided to abandon the stage to pursue a career in film: Though dark as bog peat and demented as a drunk reeling on the taste of his own piss, McDonagh's Leenane and Aran plays, with their drizzle-drenched scenes of graphic cruelty, desperation, and loneliness, always struck me as little more than the latest knot in a long string of forthright works by angry young men — a noble, though increasingly predictable lineage stretching back through David Mamet and Sam Shepard, to John Osborne and Edward Bond.

But now that I've experienced The Pillowman at Berkeley Rep, the dreadful truth of McDonagh's flight from the theater is finally beginning to sink in. Suffocating in its brilliance and strikingly different than any of his previous works, McDonagh's most recent play (which received its premiere at London's National Theatre in 2003 and garnered a prestigious Olivier Award for Best Play) is turning me into a desperado. I've half a mind to jump on a plane to Belgium next week to see what I can do to sabotage the shooting of McDonagh's debut feature film, In Bruges. Specifically, I'd like to whisk the nascent screenwriter-director away from the clutches of Colin Farrell and lock him up in the theater where he belongs.

If I'm sounding like Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery, it's not entirely my fault. This is what The Pillowman does to a person. My impulse to do something deeply irresponsible in response to an engrossing piece of storytelling is right there in the thick, soft folds of McDonagh's own narrative.

Unraveling in some unspecified, vaguely mittel-European "totalitarian state," The Pillowman follows what happens when a couple of police officers interrogate a writer named Katurian Katurian about the relationship between his ghoulish fairy tales (in which, almost invariably, "some poor little kid gets fucked up") and the gruesome murders of three local children. Tortured and slung into a bare room with his brain-damaged older brother Michal (also under arrest), Katurian dives back into his stories and own childhood in an attempt to piece together the facts behind the crimes. Just when it seems like the brothers might be in a position to protest their innocence, Michal accidentally — and apropos of nothing — admits to chopping off a little boy's toes, shoving razor-blade-laced apples down a little girl's throat, and doing something even more unspeakable to another small child. "What did you do it for?" an incredulous Katurian asks. "Because you told me to," Michal responds, claiming inspiration from his brother's stories.

In an interview for the U.K. Guardian a few years ago, McDonagh distilled the art of playwriting into six words: "story and a bit of attitude." In works like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, McDonagh uses stories as metaphors to hint at such themes as loneliness, depression, and the fine line between truth and fiction. But the dramatist's formula reaches its apotheosis in The Pillowman, where storytelling, even more profoundly, is a metaphor for itself. Rather than serving as expressions of some other more "important" truth — whether autobiographical, metaphysical, or social — in The Pillowman, stories exist purely for themselves. The play delights in the human instinct to create fictions and lose oneself — and others — in them.

At the apex of the drama stands the figure of the Pillowman — a smiley, Michelin Manlike character made of soft pillows and a big heart — whose entire purpose in life, as revealed through one of Katurian's fairy tales, revolves around helping children commit suicide to spare them the agony of later pain and strife. As the facts surrounding Katurian's own troubled past unfold (it's no coincidence, I'm sure, that the writer's peculiar name brings thoughts of real-life "mercy killer" Jack Kevorkian and fictional child molester Humbert Humbert to mind), the Pillowman's presence seems to get larger and larger. Before long, the act and effect of storytelling, with its built-in collision of fairy tale and fact, becomes so overwhelming that it threatens to smother the entire narrative arc like a big fluffy pillow held over a sleeping person's face.

As told through director Les Waters' pulse-pumping production for Berkeley Rep, McDonagh's vicious little yarn plays itself out like a bedtime story of the most frightening and funny kind. Unlike on Broadway, where director John Crowley distinguished between different realities through the use of a compartmentalized set during the play's run at the Booth Theatre in 2005, Waters both creates narrative compactness and suggests the perpetually porous membrane between fact and fiction by confining the actors to a single, multipurpose space. It is this blurring of the internal (fictional) and external (real) landscape conveyed via the faded splendor of Antje Ellermann's police interrogation room set, Russell H. Champa's sickly, lurching lights, and Obadiah Eaves' eerie soundscape, that helps to make this Pillowman pungent.

Adopting a performance style that is as deadpan as it is cartoonish, the actors are equally responsible for driving McDonagh's story. As Katurian and Michal respectively, Erik Lochtefeld and Matthew Maher achieve a pristine balance between savagery and tenderness. Meanwhile, Tony Amendola and Andy Murray's turns as cops Tupolski and Ariel combine a brutality akin to the Officer's in Kafka's horrifying torture story "In the Penal Colony" with a touch of the frazzled, sitcom dad.

The upshot of the experience of seeing The Pillowman at Berkeley Rep is a profound sense of awe at the potential of theater as a storytelling medium. It is this — and this alone — that makes me want to dash off to Belgium to wrestle the camera out of McDonagh's hands. It's not that I have doubts about McDonagh's abilities as a filmmaker; his narrative instincts are as sharp in his Oscar-winning short, Six Shooter, as they've ever been on stage. In Bruges might even turn out to be one of the must-see films of 2008. It's just that McDonagh's primary skill — his ability to manipulate an audience with a shocking, provocative tale — doesn't translate as effectively in a medium as weighed down by the conventions of naturalism as cinema.

I'll just have to hope that this budding Scorsese eventually tires of Hollywood and returns to the fold. But even if McDonagh ends up moving to Los Angeles and never steps inside a theater again, Katurian's stories will live on, long after the final frame.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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