The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is currently playing at the Broken Leg Stage in the Tower District of Fresno. The production was directed by Heather Parish, who has directed plays for the Woodward Shakespeare Festival, and stars local actors James Sherrill, Jaguar Bennett, Travis Sheridan, and Landon Weiszbrod. It runs from January 28-29, and February 3-6, 2011, and is presented by Parish’s company, The New Ensemble (http://newensemble.com).
The story involves a writer, Katurian K. Katurian (played by James Sherrill), who is arrested and questioned by two police officers, Tupolski (Jaguar Bennett) and Ariel (Travis Sheridan), in an unnamed totalitarian state. Katurian’s stories, many retold in the play, often involve violence against children, and the writer’s brother, Michal (Landon Weiszbrod), is mentally and emotionally stunted as a result of years of torture as a child. The play is stark, disturbing, and laced with dark comedy. The Broken Leg Stage’s intimate space seems perfect for such a play, as the floor and walls are painted black, looking like a place of torture in a totalitarian state, and the closeness of audience to performer makes the material seem closer and more immediate. The minimal set, with just a few folding chairs and a table, adds to the dark atmosphere.
James Sherrill’s performance is intense and believable, anchoring the play. His reactions to what happens around him show Katurian’s caring nature, despite the brutal nature of his stories. Katurian’s story “The Pillowman” is about a seemingly cuddly man made of pillows, whose job it is to convince young children to commit suicide in order to prevent their future suffering from a harsh life. A pillow, which most associate with sleep and softness, becomes a symbol of death, as a pillow can be used to snuff out a life by holding it over someone’s face. The Pillowman is a hero, or is he? Death is an escape from suffering, or is it? Can suffering lead to positive things in life, or should it be avoided at all costs? Would Katurian have written all those stories if he and his brother hadn’t suffered to such a high degree? Great literature asks many questions that are left unanswered.
Landon Weiszbrod played Michal as a child-like man who means well but often doesn’t understand the world around him. Katurian acts as rescuer to his brother, both in the past and in the present, though in very different ways. The two police officers are often the source of most of the dark comedy, as they toy with Katurian in various ways. After Ariel physically attacks Katurian, Tupolski informs him that, “I am the good cop, and he is the bad cop.” They deliberately try to unnerve Katurian by asking for his next of kin, or twisting his own words to use against him.
My only disappointment from this production was that the dark comedy seemed to be underplayed. I had read The Pillowman prior to seeing the production, and for me it seemed funnier on the written page. The timing was not quite right in places, and I wondered if that was a deliberate choice on the part of the director. I found that the dark comedy added some relief to such an intense play, though when I did laugh, it was sort of an uncomfortable laughter, adding another dimension to the play’s power.
In total, though, The Pillowman leaves the audience feeling a little shaken, and stirred to philosophical thought on the nature of life, suffering, and art. It will stay with the audience long after the house lights come on.