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Warning: This review contains SPOILERS.—R.W.M.
Guest director for Manbites Dog Theater’s current production is a gentleman by the name of Kevin Ewart, a man steeped in academia in general and theater in particular, most particularly at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. He notes in his program bio that his connection to Manbites Dog is through Jay O’Berski, who, incidentally, plays the lead in this production. The work, penned by Irish playwriting star Martin McDonagh, is titled The Pillowman; and one cannot know to what the reference alludes until one sees the play. “The Pillowman,” and some 400 other short stories, are seized by the police of a totalitarian state, along with their author, Katurian K. Katurian (O’Berski). It seems these short stories — three of them in particular — have an amazing similarity to three murders that have, up until now, gone unsolved by said police.
As is true with nearly everything Martin McDonagh writes, we are never exactly sure whether we are watching a comic drama or a dark comedy, and it seldom matters. The opening moments of this play are superlatively funny, thanks to the interaction between O’Berski and his two captors, a Detective named Tupolski (Gregor McElvogue) and a policeman named Ariel (Jeffrey Scott Detwiler). Tupolski seems to be the epitome of quiet, industrial effectiveness, whereas Ariel (the winged indentured servant in The Tempest?) is very tightly wound, and more than eager to jump his prisoner and beat him senseless.
Beyond question, the police are sure they have their man. Since only one of Katurian’s short stories has ever been published, it is terribly difficult to imagine anyone else perpetrating such perverse crimes against children. One is choked to death on her own blood, another is bled to death after being brutally maimed with a meat cleaver, and the third is missing and presumed dead. Since all of Katurian’s stories run in this vein, it is easy to assume that he must be the murderer. He is, therefore, being interrogated for two murders and under suspicion of a third. But very little is as it appears in a McDonagh play; and, as we learn slowly, the truth is stranger than the fiction.
Scene 2 enforces the beliefs of the police by showing us — in vivid and graphic detail — another of Katurian’s stories, “The Tale of the Writer and the Writer’s Brother.” In this tale, a child of 7, as portrayed by Katurian, is pampered and doted on by his parents (Dana Marks and Marc Harber, who actually portray three sets of parents), while his older brother, Michal (Lucius Robinson), is tortured by his parents every night — for seven years — so that his younger brother, sleeping in the next room, can vaguely hear his muffled screams. This causes the young writer to begin writing stories of a more morbid nature, because he cannot dismiss these terrible dreams.
Scene 3 introduces us to Michal in the flesh; he was also arrested by the police and has been sequestered in another room. We have already learned that the one other person who does know all of Katurian’s stories is Michal; Katurian has read every one of them to his brother, who, though older, is retarded. We suspect this is because of the torture we learned of in Scene 2. By the time Act I has come to a close, Michal is dead, and Katurian is screaming to his detective captors that he wants to confess, not just to Michal’s murder, nor to the murder of the children, but to a total of six murders, including his never-found — and apparently never-missed — parents.
This performance of The Pillowman is handled exceptionally well by all concerned. All these characters are tight, strong, and giftedly twisted — including that of Alessandra Colaianni, who plays a young girl in one of Katurian’s stories. The result is, as has consistently been the case, yet another stellar production at the hands of Manbites Dog Theater.
What is not as consistent is the caliber of the work being performed at Manbites Dog. Although all of the works formerly performed by Manbites Dog Theater have been — to varying degrees, bent — spectacular works, I cannot add this play to their numbers. Yes, it is understood that McDonagh is an exceptional playwright, with many a stunning and ingenious work; and The Pillowman, after some examination, could be added to them as still another terrible but phenomenal work. But after sitting through two-and-a-half hours of these gruesome and repulsive stories, six deaths, on-stage beatings, all culminated by an execution of the condemned man, onstage, I am not willing to go to the trouble to ferret out what makes this another McDonagh stunner. It is equally possible that the playwright, having now established his bona fides, set out to write the most repulsive, disgusting, reprehensible piece of garbage possible, so that he could then sit back and watch the critics fall all over themselves in an attempt to herald it as another work by a contemporary artistic genius.
Or it could simply be McDonagh’s own means of proving that, as Katurian says in the play, there are no happy endings. But McDonagh outdoes even himself in this play. In his works, there may be men who would cut off the ears of their brother’s beloved pet; there may be women who would put their mother’s hand in boiling oil to extract the truth from her; and there may be lawmen who would go so far as to dig up a skeleton in order to put a bullet hole in the skull. But the characters in this play are, without exception, sick; and despite their own explanations to the contrary, they have absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. Add to that the stress on the viewer of having to endure this trash for a tedious 90 minutes in the first act alone, and this work goes well beyond the pale. There is no one out there who is more complimentary of Manbites Dog than I am; but, unless you are particularly fond of perverse works, you can pretty much let this one go.
Manbites Dog Theater presents The Pillowman Thursday-Saturday, April 19-21, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, April 22, at 3:15 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, April 25-28, at 8:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday and Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 (telephone reservations for Manbites Dog season voucher holders only) or tix.com through the presenter's website. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/167/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=392092. The Pillowman: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=6096 [inactive 5/07] (Royal National Theatre) and http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/dramauk/mcdonm1.htm (The Complete Review). Martin McDonagh: http://www.irishwriters-online.com/martinmcdonagh.html (Irish Writers Online).