Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is considered by some to be one of the most provocative plays written in the last quarter century. Credited as being the supreme example of what almost is its own genre, Horror Comedy, the play is multi-dimensional, thought-provoking, intense, and open to a wide range of interpretation. By all counts it is quite dark; but very funny, even in a non-dark sort of way.
Kathleen Bosworth, Michael Beck, Cynthia Killion
into the darkest corners of the psyche; Michael Beck and Eric Mello in The Pillowman at Flying H Theatre
However, don’t be put off: People who do not even like horror, often like The Pillowman. It has spawned an almost cult-like sub-culture on the internet. So be advised if you have not seen the play: do not be put off by any synopsis or description or what you may have heard; the play is well worth experiencing, live, by anyone [but not suitable for kids]. Taylor Kasch’s new interpretation is especially accessible thanks to some terrific innovations on his part in this production.
Taylor Kasch’s Flying H production takes the high road and foregrounds the cultural critique inherent in the play, exploiting the fact that all the stories in The Pillowman, and there are many stories within stories in The Pillowman, are essentially parables; they potentially have other layers of meaning hidden within them.
To quote Kasch’s director’s notes: “On the surface Pillowman could be viewed as horror theatre or black comedy, but [take] a deeper look and you discover a maze of questions and musings on the purpose of art.”
Yes, it is that deeper look, that look into the purposes of art, that enlightened take on the play as cultural critique--a quite funny one at that--that takes Kasch’s production to a level of wider accessibility and meaning. Combined with some extremely innovative production decisions it becomes a not-to-miss theatre experience.
Set in the bowels of some sort of rendition station or prison or police station, loosely modeled on the infamous British headquarters originally set up to fight the IRA in Ireland, in an indeterminate totalitarian country in the immediate present, the play lends itself to a minimalist, stark staging that allows innovative, low-budget productions in out-of-the way places, even a production in an abandoned prison. Past productions have placed small clues in the set--a national flag or picture of a leader here and there--to suggest that the “totalitarian state” in the program may, indeed, be your own.
The Flying H production does not take this more purely political approach to the play, nor play it as horror, but prefers a more innovative and, in a sense, literal, interpretation of the script on its own terms, at all points bringing out the richness of McDonagh’s story telling.
The central story occurs Inside this prison. A relatively unknown writer, Katurian, played by Erik Mello coming off two solid back-to-back performances in Flying H’s world premier of An Open Table, and Small Engine Repair, is being interrogated by two guards, Tulpolski, played by Kathleen Bosworth, who directed Small Engine Repair, and Ariel, played by Cynthia Killion coming off her moving performance in The Other Place.
Tupolski is the traditional “good cop” while Ariel is the “bad cop”. The fact that the bad cop is improbably named “Ariel” which in some Kabbalistic lore is the name of the angel of mercy, in other texts, the avenging angel, gives a small clue to the deep philosophical eddies running beneath McDonagh’s construction.
Kasch adds an effective soundtrack, including a theme song written by Sean Hayward, and understands that the starkness of the staging lends itself to more abstract layers of interpretation. As for the set, Kasch does more with less than anyone around. But the real innovation here is Kasch’s unprecedented casting of the two guards as women.
Flying H has done this before, casting male parts with actresses, but there is something unusually, weirdly, brilliant in this instance.
First of all, Tupolski and Ariel aren’t just male roles, they are hyper-male roles: tough, ruthless thugs in a totalitarian police state in a probably secret prison, free to do anything they care to without oversight or bound by law. The innate fear they inspire is expressed immediately in Katurian’s opening lines. We clearly see that they are particularly brutish, macho characters; role-reversing them is a real head-spinner.
Second, there is something eerily sinister with women in these roles, especially in Bosworth’s Tupolski in the final act, that just isn’t the same with men in these roles as written. A sweet smile by Bosworth and a whole new layer of creepiness appears. To have a prison where the torturers are these women, saying these particular tough-guy lines, operating out of bounds of any other power, interrogating an author who writes stuff they do not like, takes the play to new places.
In particular, having Killion playing Ariel turns a stereotypical big tough guy policeman into some sort of cathartic archetypical scary anima Mama playing-out-all-the-dark-side-of-the-Id-no-one-dares-to-say-out-loud-stuff tour-de-force.
In an odd way it makes the play a more a philosophical play, if that is possible; we more quickly see it as a play of the mind, with almost mythic power, while it still retains, ironically even enhances, it’s original visceral power. It gives a more transcendent sense to the play, that it is beyond our reality, yet of and about, and mired in our reality.
Also, with the usual casting of the play, Tupolski and Ariel are the most stereotypical roles; characters we’ve seen in dozens of other films, stories, TV shows, whatever. It is Katurian and his older brother, Michal, that are the unusual and highly original characters in McDonagh’s script. By casting women as Tupolski and Ariel, Kasch has thrown all four characters into the realm of the unusual. It is a brilliant stroke.
When we eventually learn what we usually suspect about such brutes as Tupolski and Ariel and their ilk in police states, that is, that they are probably far more twisted, far more criminal, than those they interrogate, even when interrogating those who they view as criminals, or as in this case, they interrogate someone for being twisted, the fact that they are women adds a further twist to the twistedness. As we eventually find out in the third act, twisted they truly are.
Finally, there is something oddly liberating about seeing women say and do things we do not usually envision women saying and doing; and certainly it is far more original and provocative than merely seeing another set of the usual male brutes saying and doing the sadistic things we expect male brutes to do.
It all underscores one of McDonagh’s many points: how often, in this long and variegated life of ours, do we find the real criminals accusing others of crimes? How often is someone’s confused, even wrong-headed, sense of who is good and who is bad, itself the source of evils? It is a key point; and a point central to understanding our current politics and national political culture. If there has ever been an era when the pots were calling the kettles black, it is ours. Look no further than the recent US presidential debates for examples.
With all this firepower and innovation on stage, you’d think it could not be topped. But it is. Michael Wayne Beck’s Michal, Katurian’s older brother, is played with an insight into the character and physical theatre technique that is simply stunning. Usually Michal is played in a more plodding, “thicker” manner of the stereotypically slow-witted; Beck’s Michal is scintillating, luminescent, child-like, searing, innocently waif-like, cutting to the depths of the soul, unveiling the full depths of Katurian’s despair and predicament.
The play is famous for the astounding second act between Katurian and Michal. Here McDonagh’s writing reaches its full powers, his dialogue never wasting a word. Beck and Mello do it all the justice it deserves. This is acting worthy of any stage in the world.
In the end, it is this second act plus the lock-tight ensemble acting and keen staging that we’ve come to expect from a Kasch production that makes this another great evening at Flying H theatre.
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh at the Flying H Theatre
Directed by Taylor Kasch
Starring Eric Mello, Kathleen Bosworth, Michael Wayne Beck, and Cyn Killion
with light, set, and sound design by Taylor Kasch, costumes by Brenda Evans, theme song by Sean Hayward, tech and crew by Justin Woods and Joe Boles.
running until 5 June at the Flying H Theatre, 6368 Bristol Rd Ventura,
For tickets and reservations call 805.901.005 or show up at the door
Friday and Saturday Shows at 7:30, Sunday matinees at 3 pm, doors open a half hour before show-time.
Martin McDonagh begs the question, Is art capable of corrupting? Should artists be held accountable for the consequences of art? And what is the relationship between art and politics? Ultimately, the answer is personal and individual. Pillowman is peppered with themes regarding art as legacy, man\s inherent need to find meaning even when there may not be one, or at the very least unintentional.