Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Pillowman"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey

No Rest for the Weary
in New Rep’s "Pillowman"

By Beverly Creasey

The pillow person of the title of Martin McDonagh’s prize winning play, you should know, is an angel, or rather, an agent of death who suffocates little children to “save” them from a life of misery. This mordant Michelin man of a character is an invention of a prolific short story writer, a man who has been arrested as the play begins because a series of brutal child murders seem to mirror his plotlines. McDonagh’s play is not for the squeamish. It depicts unthinkable torture, not just of the suspected murderers but of the smallest of victims.

The play is part fairy tale (One of the stories borrows the mutilation Cinderella’s step-mother used to force the tiny glass slipper onto her ugly daughter’s big foot.) and a wee bit of a cautionary tale but mostly it’s a tale of unrelenting horror which McDonagh gets the audience to witness. I presume that to escape the horror, my mind raced to the many theories on the damage that can be caused just by witnessing cruelty—or can it?

The eminent psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, decreed that gruesome fairy tales like Cinderella, in fact, are not detrimental to little psyches because children learn autonomy from stories where an underdog triumphs over evil. Of course it’s evil which triumphs in McDonagh’s tales.

Child advocate Peggy Charren looked at what was on television twenty years ago and raised a national ruckus, and our consciousness, about the amount of violence children were inadvertently viewing. Even these days, now and again, someone complains about the exorbitant body count seen in prime time. Study after study has shown that viewing an excessive amount of violence raises one’s tolerance for disgust.

Certainly living with abuse can have profound consequences. Studies of violent offenders consistently uncover histories of childhood trauma. You might think from all this that PILLOWMAN is about the nature and nurture of violence—At the center of the play are two brothers, one who was physically abused and one who was not—BUT IT’S NOT. McDonagh places the value of storytelling at the heart of PILLOWMAN.

Where the story is going is puzzling at first. Although at the play’s start, a menacing detective delights in telling the storyteller “We like executing writers,” PILLOWMAN is not a particularly political play. I thought McDonagh was alluding to executed writers like Nigerian playwright Ken Sarawiwe but he went in a different direction altogether. The stylized speech patterns at the beginning of the New Rep production led me to believe the play would be an allegory but the actors soon settled into naturalistic speech. I even thought McDonagh was making a statement about animal violence by having the storyteller work in a slaughterhouse but it didn’t go there either. Where it does go is profoundly disturbing. The elaborate descriptions of child violence seemed gratuitous to me—but then I’m not a horror movie fan. I wish McDonagh could have made his point about the value of storytelling without all the gore.

Director Rick Lombardo has assembled a powerful cast, headed by John Kuntz, Boston’s man of a thousand voices. You may have to look away but it will be testament to the intensity of the performances. Audiences may be surprised to see Kuntz in a deadly serious role and Lombardo ups the ante by playing up the terror and down the (black) humor in the script. Bradley Thoennes as the brain damaged brother, and Steven Barkhimer and Phillip Patrone as the police are mighty scary but Kuntz’ stories are more frightening. (My only thoughts about the narration of the stories, is that Lombardo has Kuntz delve into his formidable arsenal of characters to illustrate the stories, rather than using his own voice, which may be pulling attention away from the storytelling. I also found the acted-out tales to be a bizarre mix of the real and the hyper-real.)

If you’re a fan of the Special Victims Unit crime dramas, you’ll be in your element at the New Rep production, although I don’t think even television is this macabre. I don’t go to movies where anyone is killed so my experience in this genre is limited. Despite John Howell Hood’s striking mirrored set (in which the audience can see itself reflected during the play) I couldn’t see myself anywhere near these characters. I still wonder why someone would choose to write this unless it’s to exorcise some personal demons and I didn’t find out what sets a dormant murderer off on a spree. McDonagh offers no answers, no insights. Just these terrifying stories. PILLOWMAN plays through October 1st, with reduced price day of performance tix.

"Pillowman" (6 September - 1 October)
Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, WATERTOWN MA
1 (617)923-8487

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