At intermission during the superb Redtwist Theater production of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant, intricate The Pillowman, I overheard the two women of a certain age sitting beside me in the cramped theater smugly, disgustedly ask each other: “Who can you recommend this play to?” In fairness, before coming to the theater, they might have been hunched over the whole day cutting-out reindeer cookies while wearing their snug wool sweaters with Frosty the Snowman embroidery on them, singing along to their Perry Como holiday CDs, tasks and outfits that tend to cut oxygen to the brain, but…I shot them the patented withering look nonetheless. Who do you recommend The Pillowman to – one of the most riveting, most provocative, most smartly-written and surprising scripts of the past decade? Well, people who embrace the power of great theater, for one. Folks with cultural taste more sophisticated than theirs, for another. When I saw the play’s Chicago premiere a couple of years ago in a heartbeat-stopping Steppenwolf production, directed by a pre-Tony nomination Amy Morton, starring a pre-Pulitzer prize Tracy Letts and a pre-Oscar nomination Michael Shannon, I didn’t think this play could be improved. It was a great play, period. But in Redtwist’s production, creatively staged by director Kimberly Senior in a suffocating, sometimes malevolent, ultimately affecting manner, the impact of the play’s theme of the power and legacy of storytelling comes through wondrously. It’s definitely one of the best Chicago productions for 2009.
The Pillowman is about a writer named Katurian Katurian, who, in an unidentified police state, is being interrogated by two police officers after a series of child murders occur that suspiciously mimic the killing methods in his grisly stories. And McDonagh, one of the most original, inventive, and darkly comic playwrights working today, piles on the grisly and the gory, with murders, both of children and adults, meticulously, horrifically detailed. But beyond that, McDonagh also, more importantly, writes brilliant, multi-layered scenes full of blistering dialogue that demonstrates how we weave so many stories about ourselves and our lives that we sometimes can’t distinguish, and follow, the thread of the genuine, authentic narratives versus the made-up-to-make-ourselves-feel-better ones. Keturian may be the literal story-teller, but the two cops tell their stories as well, conveying that how they see themselves (Ariel, “the bad cop”, as righteous, and Tupolski, “the good cop”, as clever) may not be truly what or who they are. And his words are brought to vivid, searing life by Redtwist’s pitch-perfect cast: Andrew Jessop’s Katurian, cluelessly self-important and genuinely sympathetic at the same time, and Tom Hickey’s smooth operator Tupolski, are particularly dazzling. But it’s Peter Oyloe, one of the most promising young actors working in Chicago theater currently, as Michal, Katurian’s mentally-impaired brother who admits to committing the murders, admittedly the showiest role in the play (which Shannon, garnering a Jeff nomination, magnificently played in the Steppenwolf production), who leaves the most indelible mark. It’s a pretty tricky role to play, since the character’s admitted actions are repellent, but he is mentally-disturbed, and he performed the actions mostly because of the impact that his brother’s stories has had on him. It’s the undeniable influence of the master storyteller (which is harnessed daily in politics, in mass media, in arts and culture) – he or she can move ordinary mortals to believe in, and sometimes do, extraordinary things, for better or for worse. Oyloe, through delicately-calibrated emotional responses, makes us care for and identify with Michal, which makes how he eventually ends up, shattering. I think it’s a much more physically-detailed performance than Shannon’s as well, with Oyloe’s fingers and limbs looking like they’re slightly bent and deformed, Elephant Man-like, the probable effect of seven years of violence at the hands of his and Katurian’s parents.
But director Kimberly Senior’s staging, immensely helped by the design of scenic designers Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky, is the one element that moves Redtwist’s production from mere memorable to truly brilliant. The theater is small and cramped with the audience sitting, runaway style, on two sides of a very narrow performing space, in literal spitting and sweat bead distance from the actors. The interrogation scenes, therefore, lighted by designer Christopher Burpee with single overhead light fixtures or muted spotlights, feel extremely claustrophobic, sometimes dreamily somber, like a storefont Wellesian nightmare, with Jessop’s fear or Hickey’s iciness in stark relief. The staging is genius, as well, with a different effect, though, in the scene between Jessop and Oyloe in the prison cell, where the brothers’ intimacy is beautifully, sometimes voyeuristically presented (and it helps that the two actors have great chemistry together, definitely fraternal but also subtly homoerotic, a crazy subtext that McDonagh may not have intended, but could add layers to an already complicated text). The stylized presentations of the murders are performed at the sides of the playing space in compact, moveable sets, which gives the audience the distance necessary to sit through the horror. The one nitpick I had with the Steppenwolf production was that these scenes were played out in huge, Punch and Judy-type sets, which dwarfed the action and its impact on the audience, but there is no such problem in the way Senior conceptualized these scenes here.
A lot of people like their theater straight-up, uncomplicated, simple-to-follow, and I’m sure they’re not going to love The Pillowman, despite how creative or original it is staged. The subject matter will just be a turn off. But for those of us who are often seeking the ineffable, impalpable, evanescent magic of live theatrical performance, this Redtwist production of a complex play that doesn’t give the audience any easy answers, is the real deal. Go see it now!
The Pillowman has been extended till February 6, 2009, at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr. See it after the holidays if you want to get over the Frosty the Snowman sweater spirit, but see it!