review: the pillowman

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-PILLOWMAN.html]

THE PILLOWMAN

by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Amy Morton
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Downstairs Theatre
1650 N. Halsted / (312) 335-1650 / www.steppenwolf.org
Through November 12, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 26, 2006

Four characters in a police station, and four actors portraying imagined or remembered scenes from stories and memories thickly populate the stage of the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf in Martin McDonagh‘s “The Pillowman“. Prepare to react strongly to the substance and the sequence of images. As directed by ensemble Amy Morton, “The Pillowman” provokes and incites and moves deeply.

Tupolski (Tracy Letts) and Ariel (Yasen Peyankov) are a good cop – bad cop team in a police station in an unnamed repressive police state. All the action takes place in their offices at the station and on a stage on which are enacted a series of “memory plays”. The object (or target) of their attention is Katarian (Jim True-Frost), a writer (“I just write stories, that’s all I do”), a number of whose stories depicting horrors inflicted on children have been mimicked in child homicides. The investigation of these murders expands to Ariel’s brother Michal (Michael Shannon) whose mental incapacities may have been caused by abuse suffered as a child, and who may or may not have caused some suffering of his own.

The writing is limpid and spare. The scenic design by Loy Arcenas is masterfully evocative — part Orwell’s “1984”, part rusted socialist official’s lair, and part a stage set of the imagination on which stories as read by the police officials or narrated by Katarian or remember by his brother Michal are enacted for us.

The writer Katarian notes at one point that “there are no happy endings in real life”. Somehow this masterful piece, through its misery, conveys hope and proves this statement wrong. The happy ending is to come, through the power of dreams and the power of the creative process, despite the fears engendered by that process, perhaps especially in a police state. And in fact, this play illustrates that empathy may be found in the most surprising places.

And in the end, all we have are the words and the performances. If you are up to the possibilities inherent in an unchecked police state, if you have pondered the role of the artist in society (“we like executing writers”, Tupolski says at one point, “it sends a signal”), and if you are open to the full range of possible types of family dysfunction, this is a production full of performances and images that are not to be missed.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 26, 2006)

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