The Pillowman is not a fairy tale. Children should not attend this play, nor should adults in search of fluffy, light-hearted entertainment. Written by Irish playwright Martin MacDonagh, The Pillowman garnered extensive critical praise during its recent run on Broadway. Heralded as a potent psychological thriller, MacDonagh’s contemporary statement on civil rights and the darker side of humanity went on to win a series of awards, including multiple Tonys as well as the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play. As local groups Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth Productions team up to bring the play to Calgary, the question is whether local audiences will be able to stomach The Pillowman‘s controversial content in order to see the compelling story at its root.
“It will definitely generate some visceral responses,” says Andy Curtis, who plays a determined investigator in a horrific multiple-murder case. “In previous productions there were points where they would count a dozen people leaving, thinking, ‘Okay this is too much for me!’ It’s sick shit, yet it’s funny too–with the kind of laughs that you catch as they’re coming out.”
Curtis plays Tupolski, an extension of the totalitarian police state which has come to dominate MacDonagh’s fictional society. Tupolski is charged with questioning Katurian, a fiction writer whose tales of grisly murder bear striking resemblance to a series of actual events unfolding in the local township. Katurian, played by Ryan Luhning, claims he is merely an innocent storyteller, prompting the grimly resolute Tupolski into the application of extreme measures in his pursuit of a confession.
“One of the things that actors have to be cautious about is to not impose their judgments upon a character,” says Curtis. “Even if you find yourself thinking, ‘Man, this character is a piece of shite!,’ you have to get past that, get into the character and the authenticity of the story, and not judge the character’s heart too harshly.”
For the audience, abstaining from judgment of Tupolski or his fellow investigator Ariel (played by David Trimble) may prove a more difficult task. Though the play is saturated with black comedy, the laughs would be hard-pressed to divert attention from the propensity of its characters to commit unconscionable acts in the name of justice. Curtis likens the distorted mentality of those involved with MacDonagh’s police state to that held by the Nazi’s.
“Yeah, of course there were monstrous, sadistic, horrible people,” says Curtis, “But then there were people that were just doing their job, caught up in the horrors of it all–which can create allowance to give vent to your innermost sadistic impulses.”
Curtis, while maintaining that The Pillowman isn’t intended wholly as an allegory to represent real-life current events, points out that the play does still raise questions pertinent to contemporary issues. To illustrate this, he mentions such recent civil rights controversies as were centered around the prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
“There are certainly echoes of our society in The Pillowman,” says Curtis. “In some ways, you could read the play as being about the sort of spook-run C.I.A. prisons in foreign territories in which abuses of power occur, about some of the nasty shit the American soldiers were doing over there in the name of good.”
Contemporary relevance aside, The Pillowman presents a unique narrative on human motivation and the lengths some will go to accomplish what they believe is right. Curtis also insists there are some shreds of redeeming humanity to be found in The Pillowman, despite its darker undertones.
“The Pillowman touches on themes of good versus evil, and freedom versus repression,” says Curtis. “It explores how the grey area in-between those polarities seems to exist on a sliding scale, depending on the current political situation.”