Thursday Theatre Review: The Pillowman

Birdland Theatre and The Canadian Stage Company's production of The Pillowman is a play that pummels. It pummels you with time (clocking in at a hefty two hours and 40 minutes), it pummels you with subject matter, and it pummels you with an unrelenting, unapologetic darkness. This play is not for the faint of heart. Or stomach.

Written by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, the play tells the story of Katurian K. Katurian, a writer of grisly fairytales imprisoned and questioned over a string of child murders seemingly inspired by his stories. McDonagh is no stranger to gruesomeness; his previous plays explore insanity, twisted human relationships, violence, and in one case, a very dead cat. But in The Pillowman, McDonagh is in fine macabre form.

In fact, the show is so unrelentingly dark that it pushes the boundaries of credulity. Which is totally appropriate, given that McDonagh has structured his play like the hellish fairytales created by his protagonist. But beneath the child murder, sexual abuse, torture and summary executions, The Pillowman is an intensely interesting exploration of the morality of storytelling and the responsibility of the artist to his or her creations. And despite the bleakness of the subject matter, the play manages to pull off a surprisingly redemptive ending.

The Pillowman features several powerful performances, notably Shaun Smyth as Katurian and Paul Fauteux as his damaged younger brother. The siblings have a monstrous past and share a brutal present, and Smyth and Fateaux vividly capture the agonizing depth of their relationship. Oliver Becker, who plays Detective Ariel, deserves a special nod for bringing subtlety to a character who, in the hands of a lesser actor, could easily devolve into a one-dimensional stereotype.

Unfortunately, The Pillowman suffers from from a few production problems. The sound design is excessively complicated, and you get the feeling the actors are struggling against it, rather than using it to advance the action. For the most part, the play is delivered at a rapid-fire, almost frantic pace. But when the actors get close to a difficult sound cue, you can actually feel them slowing down. Glen Davidson's two level set is impressively textured, but fails to capture the claustrophobia of a jailhouse interrogation. The Berkeley Street Theatre itself works also works against the dramatic tension of the script, swallowing energy and lines into its cavernous ceiling.

Nevertheless, The Pillowman is a haunting play with an excellent cast. It is not a 'fun' or easy show to watch. But as you leave the theatre and emerge from the blackness of the play's world, you can't help but feel it is an important piece of theatre.

The Pillowman continues until October 27 at the Berkeley St. Theatre. For tickets, visit www.canstage.com.

Photo: Paul Fauteux as Michal and Shaun Smyth as Katurian. By Chris Gallow.

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