Stop, You're Killing Me: Humor Doesn't Get Much Darker than the Grisly Laughs in The Pillowman

Human beings and violence go together like ham and eggs (or, if you prefer, butchered pigs and mutilated chicken embryos). Oddly, even though preventing and punishing violent behavior is one of the pillars of a civilized society, many people seek out savage stories and games to amuse themselves. And long ago, the Brothers Grimm discovered that even little kiddies have a seemingly unquenchable desire for tales involving the dark and grotesque.

What's a playwright to make of all this? Well, in The Pillowman, the accomplished Martin McDonagh (author of A Behanding in Spokane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore), makes a ghastly mash-up of fairy tale grisliness that is eventually so convoluted it's hard to tell what really happened. And that's perfect, since the play mirrors our society's reactions to violence, which are so scattered it's hard to define how we really feel.

As produced by convergence-continuum, this is the blackest of comedies that will have you laughing even as you hear about children being tortured and murdered. So you may dislike the theater for exposing you to such unpleasantness. Indeed, you may feel similar to the two detectives who are questioning the writer of stories in which children meet the most horrific demises. To wit, one boy has his toes cut off and bleeds to death, while a little girl swallows little men carved from apples and dies from the razor blades hidden inside.

The cops in this unnamed totalitarian Eastern European state, Tupolski and Ariel, use their good cop/bad cop schtick to whipsaw the writer, Katurian K. Katurian, into a froth of fear and loathing. Apparently, there have been child murders in the area that have mimicked the stories Katurian wrote, and the police are demanding that Katurian answer for his literary sins.

Of course, this idea is as fresh as today's headlines, as many politicians blame violent movies and video games for every mass shooting that comes along. And since Tupolski and Ariel are fond of wreaking their own brand of mayhem on their prisoners, the brutal circle of humans abusing other humans is ironically made whole.

But playwright McDonagh doesn't leave it there. He hints, and then states, that the child murders were committed by Katurian's mentally challenged brother Michal. And that would make sense, since we learn that Michal was kept locked away and tortured for seven years by his parents, even as Katurian was treated with kid gloves. But there is plenty of evidence that Michal may not be all that brain addled, and that the murders may not have even happened. As morbid reality and fantasies whirl and spin, the audience is left to sort out the details, not to mention the real intent and actions of the characters.

It's all a glorious if garish puzzle, and it is performed with varying degrees of polish by the con-con crew. As the good cop Tupolski, Robert Hawkes makes the most of a role that drops neatly into his wheelhouse. Acidly dropping sarcastic asides and smoothly reversing himself repeatedly, to the frustration of Katurian (and to the amusement of the audience), Hawkes is firmly in control of this sleek and sinister presence.

As his hot-headed partner Ariel, Stuart Hoffman bristles with white-knuckle anger, burning holes into Katurian with his laser-beam stares. But the script takes Ariel on a somewhat unpredictable path, and some of those nuances get lost in Hoffman's vein-bulging portrayal.

It's necessary that the audience relate to Katurian, even though he writes such offensive stuff, and Tom Kondilas plays the confused and unwitting stooge effectively. Indeed, you can feel his nervous sweat from the stage. But there has to be a stronger streak of arrogance in Katurian, even amidst his fear, so that the barbarism Katurian injects into his stories, and supposedly into his real life, has a starting place.

In the role of Michal, Daniel McElhaney is seemingly simplistic, begging his brother to tell his favorite story, "The Pillowman," about a fellow made up of pillows who urges kids to kill themselves and avoid the horrible lives they are doomed to lead. The four major roles are supported by Nicole McLaughlin and Melissa Freilich.

Even though the first-act scene between the brothers is repetitive and overwritten, director Geoffrey Hoffman, who doubles as co-set designer, adds some deft touches. There are cleverly choreographed moments when some of the brothers' backstories are acted out on little platforms with vertical cord blinds. This enables some arresting tableaux (including a snappy little beheading).

So, does art owe a debt to society or should it just follow its instincts, wherever they lead? Should art be a humanizing force? Good questions. One way to find answers is to see The Pillowman, throw up in your mouth a little, then start thinking.

The Pillowman

Through Oct. 13, produced by convergence-continuum at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074,

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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