Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman arrives at GableStage trailing considerable acclaim in its wake, having won an Olivier Award for Best Play in 2004 and a Tony nomination in 2005. It is a departure of sorts for the brilliant McDonagh: Instead of being about all things bizarre, violent, and Irish, it is about all things bizarre, violent, and geographically untraceable. Frankly it is not McDonagh's best work; that likely would be his subversive, exhilarating The Lieutenant of Innishmore, which is coming to GableStage next year. Still, this is gripping entertainment. And it is to director Joseph Adler's credit that in several significant ways, his Southeastern premiere production in Coral Gables serves McDonagh's script better than last year's Broadway production did.
The Pillowman's plot is simple; its theme seems to be the dangerous power of art. The play opens with a writer, his head covered by a black hood, sitting alone in an interrogation room. The place is an unidentified police state, and our hero, Katurian, has been arrested, he assumes, because of his short stories although he has published only one of the 400 he has written. The plot soon deepens in this tale about storytelling, as we learn that Katurian was brought up by abusive parents who used him and his brother Michal for twisted experiments and torture including leaving Katurian alone to listen to horrifying moans and screams from a nearby locked room. Now sweet, slow, possibly brain-damaged Michal, decidedly not all there, also has been arrested and is perhaps being tortured in the cell next door. It's a comedy, by the way.
And it really is funny. The two policemen who arrive to interrogate Katurian are a self-conscious take on a good-cop/bad-cop turn. A giddy veneer colors the ridiculously violent stories that are sometimes acted out in a mime show on a second level above the stage, at other times simply recited with deliberate pride of creation by Katurian in the spotlight. Even as he and his brother are tortured, Katurian insists that all he does is tell tales, that he is not political. "I tell stories," he says more than once. "No ax to grind. No nothing to grind. I'm not trying to say anything at all." All right. Yet the stories themselves are the meat of the play, and they are strange and disturbing by any measure: children forced to eat ginger cookies laced with razor blades, toes chopped with an ax, inventive uses of a power drill, premature burials, and worse. There is even a scene, a story of Katurian's brought to life center-stage behind a scrim, in which a crown of thorns (actually barbwire) is forced on a little girl who is convinced she's Jesus. She's crucified too. Holy Madonna.
GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables; 305-445-1119
Through September 17. Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Joseph Adler. With Antonio Amadeo, David Perez-Ribada, Paul Tei, Gregg Weiner, Kevin Reilley, Kim St. Leon, Sammi-Jack Martincak, and Karl Urban.
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Katurian will defend his work, as writers are wont to do, and might even sacrifice his and his brother's lives to save his stories from being burned by the two cops, Tupolski and Ariel. But the reason for the authorities' interest in this writer's stories is not that they are subversive, political, or just plain gross. It turns out children are being murdered around town, and they are being killed very much like the little victims in Katurian's literary fantasies. Michal is a likely suspect.
This is all too much, and it could play that way. The fashionably postmodern feel of the stories-within-the-story carry literary echoes of found ideas from Borges, Calvino, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka, with perhaps just a pinch of the Brothers Grimm. Edward Gorey's exquisitely cruel The Loathsome Couple might have been the model for Katurian's parents. The ethical dilemmas, beginning with whether literature can incite violence, are presented but not explored. What is fascinating about Adler's production is that it downplays McDonagh's dramaturgical weak points and highlights some powerful truths. The distancing effect of the ritualistic storytelling is built into the script, a necessary way to make the audience giggle and not gag at the violence. But Adler astutely mines that fine, fragile line with his cast. In short, the show at GableStage is both funnier and more serious than The Pillowman was on Broadway.
Half the battle is in the casting, and this one is certainly a triumph, by a beautifully directed group of actors. Perhaps the biggest problem of the Broadway cast lay in the irritating irony that Jeff Goldblum carries through every role like a knapsack full of Baby Boomer bullshit. His Tupolski was a constantly flashing wink at the audience. In contrast, Gregg Weiner's Tupolski is as modest as he is menacing. When Katurian realizes the cop has lied to him about his chances of living through the night, there is enough irony in the text that the actor need add nothing: "I'm a high-ranking police officer in a totalitarian state. What are you doing taking my word about anything?" Weiner gets it just right. So does Paul Tei as Ariel, making almost self-effacing use of his menacing physical presence (New York's Zeljko Ivanek, cast against type, brought his own surprises). As Katurian, Antonio Amadeo creates an aura of vulnerability that also hints at the writer's arrogance. As the mentally challenged Michal, David Perez-Ribada is emotionally devastating. The rest of the cast is splendid, lending the little flashbacks and story reenactments daring, John Waters-style broad strokes. Lyle Baskin's set, a drab interrogation room with a scrim above it that lights up to reveal the stories in Katurian's mind, is closely inspired by Scott Pask's original and works well in the intimate space.
The acclaim notwithstanding, this might be minor McDonagh, but in Adler's production, it is also terrific theater.