(L-R): John Barker, Steve Connor, Jimmy Van Buren.
Photo by Peter Kuo.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
By Mike Logothetis
Somewhere at the confluence of Poe, Kafka and Tarantino lies Martin McDonagh’s spellbinding play,The Pillowman. While some would label this as black comedy, I believe it is more dramatic realism. The feelings I had when processing the Chapel Street Players production on my walk home from the theater dealt more with unhealthy realistic possibilities than with sinister “what ifs.”
But my own petty internal arguments should not stop you from getting a ticket to this week’s final run of shows — because this is a play you should experience. Director J.W. Pukatsch puts his four main actors through a gauntlet of emotions because McDonagh’s script demands authenticity. While all the major players were excellent, the show is anchored by the stalwart performance of Jimmy Van Buren as the protagonist Katurian.
Writer Katurian’s 400 short stories (all but one unpublished) might be described as a how-to guide of “101 ways to skewer a 5-year-old.” The purportedly fictional stories have landed Katurian and his weak-minded brother Michal (Sean McKean) in prison, since the killings described in his simply-told fables have been replicated in the town where they live.
The policemen who interrogate Katurian – the disdainful Tupolski (Steve Connor) and his hot-headed partner Ariel (John Barker) – aren’t necessarily wrong in hating what their prisoner has written. These are sick, demented tales of torture written by a bruised man in a world the audience never sees outside of the prison walls. But do these lawmen deserve to be judge, jury and executioner on top of their detective roles?
Barker and Connor, as Ariel and Tupolski, turn the classic good cop/bad cop formula into a devilish vaudevillian routine. "Good cop" Tupolski toys with Katurian, giving him false impressions of understanding, sympathy and hope. "Bad cop" Ariel is an amalgam of the clichéd combustible, torture-happy cop with a secret past. The two have chemistry and perverse senses of humor that fit their surroundings. Neither seems to care a shred for humanity and force Katurian to continuously jump through hoops of their own manic creation.
Van Buren imbues the arrogant yet thin-skinned Katurian from his mercurial talking in the interrogation room to the more subdued time spent with his weak-minded brother in a holding cell. You want to root for Katurian, but the audience sees that he is not a wholly sympathetic character.
Katurian’s inflated sense of self-satisfaction when he tells a story – especially one of his stories – is pure arrogance. When the police criticize and threaten to destroy his writings, the passion boiling within Van Buren’s Katurian is palpable. Hard evidence, artistic merit, and Katurian’s insistence that the stories are pure fiction are all irrelevant. The police want him gone, but he will do anything save his stories (and their integrity).
The relationship between Katurian and his brother, the childlike Michal, is one where the able sibling has assumed a parental role. (What happened to the men’s mother and father is divulged within the play.) Michal is at once innocent and unpleasant – a dichotomy captured well by actor McKean. But is Katurian the best role model for Michal? Their relationship is a unique one, to say the least, and the play exposes its lineage.
McDonagh leads the audience down a path, but not a predictable one. Its strength is in its imagery and how the principals deliver. The Pillowman is a difficult story to tell, but everything is executed admirably in this production.
The cast is rounded out by Joseph Pukatsch, Penelope Rose Teague, and Ashley Thompson in minor roles. Kudos to set designer and builder Patrick Brisiel for his inventive and effective backdrop and props.
As a playwright, McDonagh has a casual relationship with murder, mutilation and psychological aggrievement so audiences may be shaken by the events described and simulated in The Pillowman. The show contains strong language and adult situations.
The 2003 play received the 2004 Olivier Award for Best New Play, the 2004-5 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Foreign Play and two Tony Awards.
The limited run of The Pillowman ends this week, with 8:00pm shows on August 3, 4 and 5 at the Chapel Street Playhouse, 27 North Chapel Street in Newark. Parking is available on the street or in the small lot behind the building. Tickets are $18 adult; $12 senior; and $5 student and can be purchased online, via telephone 302.368.2480 or at the box office.