Flat Earth Theatre Presents The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
The Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, Boston, MA
Review by Gillian Daniels
Under a totalitarian government, writer Katurian (Cameron Beaty Gosselin) and his brother, Michal (Chris Chiampa) are unfortunate enough to be arrested by the corrupt police force of their unnamed country. Exactly why they have been taken into the custody of Detective Tuoplski (Juliet Bowler) and the violent Officer Ariel (James Bocock) is teased out minute by painful minute. In this bitter tragicomedy, playwright Martin McDonagh asks tough questions about the responsibility of art and crime.The actors manage to do an impressive job with the twisted police procedural material. Bocock is excellent as the bad cop who never hesitates to throw a punch yet seems to carry a much deeper, more nuanced bitterness inside him. Juliet Bowler’s Tupolski is cruel in a different way, the non-traditional casting making her sharper and more threatening. Gosselin is certainly believable as a writer convinced of his own brilliance but embarrassed over what the effects of said brilliance may cause and Chiampa plays his mentally-challenged character with pitch-perfect charm and naiveté.
“The Pillowman” is an uncomfortable story. Not for the squeamish, torture is depicted on stage and stories of child murder and molestation are often described in gruesome detail. It’s not an easy show to enjoy by any means, but McDonagh takes care to slip in some small humorous moments into “Pillowman.” He laughs at the ridiculousness of the characters’ circumstances, the absurdity of the blood spilled or described on stage. This has the effect, though, of making the production cause even more discomfort. It switches between laughter and darkness in sometimes millisecond intervals, the audience unsure when to laugh and when to watch in nervous silence. It’s a difficult combination
to manage and the tone often feels uneven. I enjoyed the conflation of tragedy and comedy much better in the last show I saw, “Be A Good Little Widow.” Here, with each new crime described to the audience, it’s difficult not to use the word “excessive.” Eventually, the shock wears down to numbness.
Now, there’s certainly a reason given why that violence is so prevalent. The supposedly brilliant writer Katurian writes mainly of children dying terrible deaths and there’s a lot of miserable, bleak humor to reap from his stories. Much of the show is set up to debate what responsibility he has over the actions his stories may or may not cause. It’s a good argument. “The Pillowman” embraces moral ambiguity bravely and bloodily but, while McDonagh manages to push the audience out of themselves and consider real life consequences of fiction, not every viewer will be able to stomach the stark world offered to them.