Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Pillowman: heartfelt, horrific and fascinating

I took my seat in the Yvonne Theatre apprehending the worst and bracing myself for gut-wrenching carnage. While I was prepared to appreciate “The Pillowman” for its thoughtfulness and honesty, after all I heard about its violence and darkness I wasn’t expecting to really like it. However, I found myself walking out of the theatre realizing that Rider University’s daring production of Martin McDonagh’s six-year-old play was actually, strangely, beautiful.

Under the careful direction of Professor Miriam Mills, the production was judicious in the way it approached gruesome subjects. The heart of the play is still perfectly intact; an important lesson—the tragic consequences of abusing children—is still brutally conveyed. Any audience member with a soul walks away with this warning ringing loudly in both ears, along with the gunshot forewarned in the beginning by the overhead voice asking us to turn off our cell phones.

The play wasn’t so nightmarish in its proportions thanks to how often the tension was cut with biting, grim humor. Most of the comic relief came from the good cop/bad cop routine, where Detectives Tupolski (returning veteran Kevin Feehery) and Ariel (sophomore Justin Kelly) manipulated the prisoner’s high-strung fear for their own mirth; the intolerant egotism in each man was uncomfortably funny. It makes you wonder at the hands holding the reins of your own justice system.

This thought-provoking aspect was most important in “The Pillowman.” It engaged us in judgment of the characters, their backgrounds and their current states of being. “The Pillowman” left it up to us to decide, in spite of all the appalling things the characters did, whether they deserve forgiveness and understanding. Then again, as Detective Tupolski said, “I’m tired of everyone using their shitty childhoods to justify their shitty behavior.”

This begs the yet-unresolved question: as much as we would like to claim agency, are we just products of our childhood conditioning? Certainly this seems to be true in the case of the horrific experimental background of the protagonist, Katurian (freshman David Spadora), and his mentally shattered brother, Michal (junior Tommy Butler).

I had already formed misgivings before the play even started: I wondered how any good man could voluntarily create fiction with the worst kind of cruelty towards children. However, initial disgust gave way to immense sympathy and despair—followed closely by morbid curiosity—for Katurian as he fiercely protected his brother and took justice into his own hands.

Spadora must have been emotionally wrecked rehearsing this role these past several weeks. His performance as Katurian required grave intensity. He shook in fear and cried out constantly, not to mention his nervous, jerky body movements and wincing facial expressions. He is only strong when he is in his essence: telling transfixing, twisted—and, as Michal stated, “not so far-fetched”—stories.

While the plotline revelations were slow in coming, the play was never boring. Its pace was quite fitting, in fact: it gave the audience time to digest each tragic detail before moving on to the next. Meanwhile, the fates of the characters are foreshadowed heavily, so the audience actually becomes more engrossed with the secrets of the past.

Additionally, the mysterious set indicated the play’s tone well before the actors even took the stage. The green-gray, thick, blocked off walls of the interrogation chamber evoked a slight nausea to complement the feeling of confinement. The lonely filing cabinet shared one wall with a lonely wastepaper basket, placed beside three unyielding metal chairs. The dim, sparse yellow lights completed the stark effect.

In a pre-production discussion, Mills revealed her worry that the shock factor of seeing obscenities acted out before our eyes might overwhelm our senses so that we wouldn’t see the dynamic quality of the acting. On the contrary, I felt the viciousness and tenderness of the actors’ performances much more so than I felt disturbed by the action itself. Like in ancient Greek theater, relentless characters, not spectacle, brought these horrors home.

To illustrate: one of the most gripping parts in the play comes when Michal simply tells his brother the whole truth. Michal’s confession is innocent and remorseless; the eerie incongruity leaves you caught between disgust and pity at his wholesomeness. If the director had chosen to show these acts graphically, the already-hidden beauty in the play, exemplified through the paradoxically guilty and blameless Michal, might have been further obscured.

Michal doesn’t completely grasp the concept of guilt for others’ suffering. However, as Katurian mutters to himself over and over, “it’s not your fault, Michal.” Michal’s endearing, dreadful simplicity punches you in the gut—so much you start to wonder at yourself: dare you feel sympathy and compassion for the one who committed such atrocities?

Still, “The Pillowman” wasn’t as defined by revulsion and horror as the hype made it out to be. This enthralling, imaginative tragedy challenges the preconceptions we carry with us and even incorporates a delicate, heartbreaking twist.