nytheatre.com review by Sarah Whalen
November 6, 2009
I have to admit, I've seen The Pillowman before. I was lucky enough to see the opening in London and couldn't wait to see it again in New York when it crossed the Atlantic. When I heard it was being performed at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, I jumped at the opportunity to see Martin McDonagh's brilliant play come to life once again, and I was delighted with the outcome.
The Pillowman is the story of a writer named Katurian Katurian (middle initial: K.) who is imprisoned, along with his mentally challenged brother, Michal, for reasons unknown to him. As the play unfolds, Katurian learns that his stories, almost all of which surround the theme of child abuse and murder, are inextricably linked to the deaths of three local children. Through his struggle to prove himself innocent to "good cop" Tupolsky and "bad cop" Ariel, Katurian unleashes some muddy truths about his childhood, and reveals that circumstances are not always what they seem. The audience is left to ponder truth, innocence, faith, and artistic integrity.
"Tense" is probably the best word to describe The Pillowman. It always rides a fine line between hilarious and horrifying and manages to toy with the audience in a way that left me feeling slightly battered as I left the theatre. It's a tough play to pull off. The script contains huge themes and countless minute details, and if the tension is not maintained for the full two and a half hours, it could be a disaster. But, the folks at Astoria Performing Arts Center kept my pulse racing from start to finish. The daunting gray and black walls that compose the set (designed by Stephen K. Dobah) create uneasiness right from the start. The original music composed by Ryan Homsey sounds like a slasher film soundtrack and actually made me jump out of my seat a few times as the lights faded to complete black. Even the set changes are tense, as Tupolsky (played by Seth Duerr) and Ariel (Richard D. Busser) slam drawers and shove chairs around carelessly and dangerously. As I left the Astoria Performing Arts Center, which is located in a Methodist Church, I noticed the strong religious tension in the play, which is something I hadn't considered during other productions.
Because of several unanswered plot twists (that I promise I won't spoil), The Pillowman is an inherently ambiguous play that can leave the audience feeling uneasy long after the curtain call. Some of that exciting uncertainty has been lost in director Tom Wojtunik's strong choices and clear opinions about the characters' involvement with the actual crimes, but the story is still compelling and exciting. The cast handles the difficult material beautifully, specifically Avery Clark as Katurian who brings the seemingly innocent character's sinister side to life through his storytelling. Duerr sheds some darkness on Tupolsky's character by maintaining a cold and rather monotonous delivery, which makes him seem more dangerous and threatening, thus adding to the thick tension.
If you haven't gotten the chance to see The Pillowman yet, make the trip to Astoria and be prepared to immerse yourself in a compelling story that will haunt you and keep you asking questions for the weeks to follow. And even if you have seen the show, or if you've read the script before, do yourself a favor and see it again. You'll hear new things emerge from the complex script and you'll find novelty in a story that you think you know.