Pillowman anything but soft

By Kevin de Vlaming

Not all stories have happy endings. This is a prevalent theme throughout Martin McDonagh’s viciously captivating play The Pillowman. The production, presented jointly by Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth, attempts to walk a fine line between black comedy and disturbing psychological thriller, all the while relating a series of stories interconnected by their tragic, often poetic conclusions.

Driven by a remarkably talented ensemble of actors, The Pillowman presents a dystopic society in which the law isn’t restrained by such trivialities as civil rights. A short-fiction writer and his brother are brought in for questioning regarding a series of horrific child-killings. The resulting narrative unfolds more like a countdown to something awful than a whodunit, suspense building, as the characters are more and more tangled up in each others’ stories, their lives careening helplessly toward the final moments.

Ryan Luhning, Ground Zero artistic director, takes the role of the slightly maladapted writer Katurian K. Katurian with a contagious sense of desperation. As Katurian, Luhning is required to run the emotional gamut from tenderly compassionate brother to sardonically embittered victim of circumstance–from sniveling coward to defiant martyr. This presents a difficult task to perform while maintaining sincerity in the character, but Luhning, largely due to the obvious competence of his accompanying actors, pulls off the most challenging role of the production exceedingly well.

As the overzealous bulldog-cop Ariel, David Trimble portrays a genuinely seedy, Vick Mackey-esque character, perfectly complimenting Andy Curtis’ by-the-book detective Topolski. Both lawmen have narrative threads unto themselves that are nearly as important as Katurian’s, and by the end of the play, they’ve all become so integral to one another that it’s hard to believe the story started as seperate pieces. From Tupolski’s logic-driven, though eccentric, pursuit of justice, to the morbid satisfaction which Ariel receives from torturing accused child-killers, everything seems to have a reason for being the way it is, like a literary jig-saw puzzle. Through this, the play develops a self-consciousness, each piece falling together so neatly in every narrtive thread, they may as well each be one of Katurian’s short stories.

Trevor Leigh’s performance as Katurian’s mentally-handicapped brother Michal is easily the best of the bunch, and nothing short of brilliant. His childlike innocence is sharply contrasted with the dismally hostile confines of the cell he’s being held in with his sibling. Watching Leigh as Michal playfully accost his recently-tortured brother, not understanding the grave reality of the situation, is both soul-shattering and heart-warming. It’s moments like these that best illustrate McDonagh’s black humour.

That tenderness can be found in even the most terrible circumstances is another concept emphasized throughout the play. The staging in an ominous interrogation room, barren save for a table, three chairs and a couple of relevant props, reflects the coldness of McDonagh’s fictional police state. Yet on this same stage, heartfelt confessions of loss and love seep out between the harrowing screams of torture and murder.

Vaguely unsettling at times and worth a guilty chuckle at others, The Pillowman is an imaginative excursion into the dark directions the human mind is capable of being led, given the right circumstances. The play would be brought down by its unwieldy length, clocking in at nearly three hours, but the nature of its cross-weaving narratives make it feel far shorter than it is. Ground Zero and Hit & Myth’s production of this Broadway success is triumphant in relating a story worth telling, and in providing an evening at the theatre well spent.

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