Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, 7 Towers Theatre Company at Dougherty Arts Center, July 12 - 28, 2013

ALT review 2013The Pillowman Martin McDonaugh, 7 Towers Theatre Company, Austin TX

by Michael Meigs

The Pillowman takes place in a dark, eerie world that Martin McDonagh created back in 2003 when he moved away from his dark Irish ethnic plays The Beauty Queen of Leenan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The Hyde Park Theatre staged this piece in 2007, winning Ken Webster a B. Iden Payne for direction and critics' table awards for actors Jude Hickey and Kenneth Wayne Bradley. Both Southwestern University and the UT University Theatre Guild staged The Pillowman in 2011, and the Woodlawn Theatre in San Antonio did it last year.

But I hadn't seen it. Had no idea about it, in fact. so I was a tender and willing victim for the twists and ironies of McDonagh's brothers caught in a grim fairy tale.

The Anglo-Irish playwright combined two epic horror traditions: folk tales, such as those recorded by the Brothers Grimm, that elaborated upon basic primal fears of violence and death, and twentieth-century totalitarian practices that accorded state authorities absolute discretion in use of violence and summary execution. The Pillowman portrays the interrogation and investigation of the oddly named Katurian K. Katurian (the middle initial stands for Katurian), a baffled and accommodating writer obsessed with creating modern-day equivalents of those folk tales. They're vivid, thought-provoking and -- with one exception -- they all end with the deaths of the protagonists.

Pillowman Martin McDonagh 7 Towers  Austin TX
Travid Bedard, Aaron Black (photo: 7 Towers Theatre)
Crimes have been committed, and they mirror Katurian's black whimseys.

The piece could be interpreted as a fable about the suppression of creativity and imagination, but the macabre nature of Katurian's imaginings and other details revealed during harrowing confrontations in this nameless prison lead in a different direction. McDonagh's horror story is really about the lasting damage inflicted upon children by callous, exploitative adults. Standing in the middle of the story and the dilemma is Katurian's mentally and emotionally handicapped brother Michael, also arrested, a childlike man incapable of understanding any of these nuances.

This action is intense, brimming with suspense, and Director Christina Gutierrez chose some of Austin's most muscularly intellectual actors to create the piece. Travis Bedard's Katurian is earnest, eloquent and sly; Aaron Black endows brother Michael with vulnerability, effusive reactions and innocence. The emotional links between the two resonate, and we understand Katurian's determination to protect Michael. The cops are just as vividly drawn -- David Boss as Detective Tupolski, the senior of the two, dapper and bloody minded, and Stephen Price as Detective Ariel, all fire and scarcely contained violence.

The country is unnamed and the time is undefined -- this is the blank landscape of nightmare. Names are vaguely eastern European, but this cast speaks in varieties of Irish accent. Tupolski's is the more sophisticated, perhaps suggesting higher education somewhere privileged, while Price's rhythm and vowels seem rural and perhaps underclass. It seems odd initially that Bedard as Katurian uses only the lightest lilt, while the speech of his brother, played by Black, is much more markedly Irish.

Pillowman Martin McDonagh 7 Towers Theatre Company Austin TXThe company illustrates Katurian's fables with shadow puppetry by Katie Rose Pipkin and Lindsay McKenna. Simple, relatively rigid figures appear in rectangles of light projected from behind the walls of the box set, symbolizing the fugue states of Katurian's imagination without suggesting any possibility of escape from misery or menace. This is an adroit touch, and it relieves somewhat the claustrophobic appearance of the stark setting.

The Dougherty Arts Center seemed an awkward space for this piece, for it has a wide apron and a ten- or twelve-foot expanse of flooring in front of the first row of seats. Given the intensity of the piece, I would have preferred to bring the whole set forward and perhaps even to locate much of the action on the floor in front of the stage. These are ex-post reflections, however, for as the story unfolded I was transfixed by the language, the several myths being spun before us, the inevitable but unpredicable climax that was coming, and the transformed appearances and characters of actors I'd seen a number of times.

Pillowman Martin McDonagh 7 Towers Theatre Austin TX
Travis Bedard, puppetry by Katie Rose Pipkin (photo: 7 Towers Theatre)

The cast took The Pillowman out to Winedale on Monday evening and performed before the 17-member UT troupe currently running three Shakespeare plays in repertory. The old barn's relatively shallow stage and close seating almost certainly provided an even more intensely satisfying experience that the one offered at the Dougherty over the last two weekends . But I admit that I'm a propiniquity junkie, almost always to be found in the front row, and the audience was scattered all about the Dougherty seating space.

7 Towers performs The Pillowman three more times, Friday through Sunday at 8 p.m. Go, experience it. It won't make much difference where your seat is located; you'll be holding onto it tight.

Review by Bob Kinney at his Wordpress blog, July 13 - with images

Review by Adam Roberts for the Austin Chronicle, July 19

Review by Jeff Davis at, July 24 

Click to view program for The Pillowman

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