‘The Pillowman’ foregrounds literary craft with tortured tales

One would expect torture, murder and child-abuse to make for difficult bedfellows in a single work of literature. Yet, these are only some of the central themes put on the table by The Pillowman, the 2003 play by Ireland’s own Martin McDonagh, performed over the weekend in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance and directed by Mario Mastromarino ’12. In the course of this long, often disturbing interrogation of an unsuspecting writer and his tortured pieces, we discovered with horror the power of writing and the terrifying truth that often lurks behind creative genius. 

The first act threw us into an interrogation room, where part-time author Katurian K. Katurian (spoiler alert: the K is for Katurian) was being cross-examined by two particularly fiendish officers of the law, Ariel and Tupolski. The unreserved violence of his treatment, line of questioning and general ambience of the dialogue quickly make it obvious that the scene was set in an ambiguously foreign totalitarian state, in which Detective Tupolski and her sidekick had been given carte blanche to extract information from their unfortunate victim. From the get-go we were thrust in Katurian’s shoes: With no knowledge as to the crime he was alleged to have committed, we were confused, disoriented and struggling to uncover the truth. In the role of the battered storyteller was Christopher Gay ’13, who gave a strong, earnest performance; a surprising change from his usual humorous roles, Gay had us convinced from the start of his character’s innocence, and we waited expectantly to discover if he could avoid his seemingly inescapable fate.

As they progressed in their questioning, the officers employed increasingly brutal means to satisfy their mysterious ends. In this twisted parody of the traditional “good cop, bad cop” ploy, Tallis Moore ’14 as Ariel incarnated a frighteningly ruthless policeman, whose thinly veiled, troubled past fueled his rage against the bewildered Katurian. On the other side of the spectrum, the calm, collected Tupolski was played by Rebecca Fallon ’14, in a daring and extremely successful directorial choice from Mastromarino. Intended in the script as a male character, the detective was completely incorporated by Fallon as she gave her role an unexpected twist; behind the bright lipstick, plastered-on smile and biting sarcasm, we saw the outline of a bitter, broken soul, a psychotic monster much more dangerous and volatile than the bestial Ariel. Contributing the most exciting and original performance of the play, Fallon added a great deal of texture to the detective’s acidic personality, in addition to punctuating the distressing plot with copious amounts of dark, witty humor.

After these two did their job and slowly shed light on the situation, the reasons behind Katurian’s presence became chillingly clear: Two children had been murdered in gruesome ways that mimicked his tormented stories, and another had gone missing. It is from this perspective that we were introduced to the writer’s works; his stories were dissected and analyzed, taken apart by the two cops as they read them aloud and highlighted their macabre content. Subsequently, in the second act he was thrown into the same cell as his brother, brought to life by David Phillips ’12. Michal Katurian was mentally handicapped, which seemed to make him a target for the regime in place; his brother protected him, careed for him and shareed all of his short stories with him. Phillips skillfully captured the complexity of his character, who whilst being entirely dependent on his brother possessed an unanticipated dark past of his own. This segment constituted the only major failing of the play, through no fault of the cast or crew; this lengthy act followed only the conversation between the two brothers, as Katurian told his stories and Michal slowly divulged his terrible secret. The over-long dialogue excessively delayed the final punchline, and the flourish of action before the intermission came as a welcome change of pace.

In the final act, heartbreaking revelations led the writer to confessing to crimes that were not his, as he hoped to preserve his only legacy, his stories, which had nonetheless caused such dreadful atrocities. This was the first significant theme we drew from The Pillowman: the importance and power of storytelling. Katurian, who was staring into the face of an unavoidable death, had in mind only the safekeeping of the single perennial proof of his existence: the stories that were born out of the very fabric of his life. This highlights in itself the theme of the importance of childhood as an almost entirely separate experience from adulthood, an innocent precursor to an almost inevitably sad and dark existence. Katurian’s horrific upbringing proved to be only an “experiment,” and a successful one at that – it aptly showed how life-changing trauma can serve as sufficient inspiration for truly great, though warped, works of genius as the artist struggles to sublimate his demons.

The fiendish detective Tupolski (Rebecca Fallon ’14) readies to shoot the tortured genius Katurian (Christopher Gay ’13).