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October 6, 2006

Gruesome Pillowman shocks Chicago

In case you weren’t aware, Martin McDonagh is the best playwright writing in English to have emerged in the past decade. This fact is all the more impressive since all his plays were written in a single creative outburst in 1993 after no formal training. Since The Beauty Queen of Leenane took London by storm in 1996, the theater world on both sides of the pond has slowly begun to unravel the intricate, sick genius of this Irish-descended English playwright. Four Tony nominations, two Olivier awards, and an Oscar later, The Pillowman, arguably McDonagh’s best play, has made its Chicago premiere at the Steppenwolf.

I first saw The Pillowman toward the end of its Broadway run in the summer of 2005, and it struck me how much the play differed from his other works. While Beauty Queen, The Lonesome West, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore all used western Ireland as a somewhat mystical setting, The Pillowman takes place in the police headquarters of an unnamed totalitarian state, completely devoid of character.

That change ended up helping the play reach a level of universality unseen in his other plays, while still maintaining McDonagh’s savage wit and brilliant juxtaposition of the gruesome with the hilarious. Although the Broadway production had outstanding performances by the likes of Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum, the acting was secondary to the strength of the writing. While the Steppenwolf production sometimes suffers from inconsistent acting and design, the sheer brilliance of McDonagh’s storytelling vastly overwhelms the production’s flaws.

The Pillowman tells the tale of Katurian (Jim True-Frost), a writer who has written hundreds of short stories involving grotesquely violent acts committed against children. He is being interrogated by two police officers: bad cop Ariel (Yasen Peyankov) and good cop Tupolski (Tracy Letts) after a few children have been murdered—or at least we are told so—in the style of Katurian’s stories.

Later we learn of more examples of real life torture of children and where Katurian’s mentally damaged brother Michal (Michael Shannon) fits into the mix. We also see some of his more gruesome stories enacted in a play-within-the-play format. While execution always looms over the two brothers, Katurian seems more concerned about saving the legacies of his stories than about his or his brother’s life.

Part of the production suffers from the conservative nature of Loy Arcenas’s set design. While in the Broadway production the enactment of Katurian’s stories occurred hanging over the main set, in this production they occur behind the set. Because they occur so far from the audience, the electrode torture and crucifixion reenactments are less disturbing.

Another problem is a few poor casting decisions. While Tracy Letts excelled when enacting thinly-veiled vulnerability in recent Steppenwolf productions like The Well-Appointed Room and Last of the Boys, the role of Tupolski requires slick acting with no hint of despair, even when it may seem to be called for. Letts lacks the confidence needed to realize the role’s potential.

Furthermore, while Peyankov is quite good at conveying Ariel’s violently volatile nature, he often struggles at understanding how best to convey his lines. Part of the problem is his use of a Russian accent. Although that decision may seem like a logical choice for a Russian actor playing a totalitarian police officer, it ultimately creates a false parallel to the real world which the play so strongly fights against.

One improvement in acting over the New York production is True-Frost’s award-worthy performance as Katurian. McDonagh’s plays are not meant for Stanislavskian techniques, and while Crudup made Katurian’s desperation readily apparent on Broadway, True-Frost sheds all traces of Method, letting his emotions fly all over the place.

Ultimately, though, this play is not about acting or sets but about the need to tell a story and leave a legacy at all costs. The play ends on an uplifting note, a mood that is rare in the play, but, in the words of McDonagh: “was somehow…somehow…more in keeping with the spirit of the thing.” It’s hard not to think that by the end McDonagh has put himself in Katurian’s place, and indeed, McDonagh has said to The New York Times, “We’ve all only got a small amount of time to leave something decent behind us.” Martin McDonagh is 36 years old, and may never write another play again, but because of one outburst 13 years ago, he’s already accomplished just that.