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Vol. LXII, No. 14
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
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TORTUROUS TALES: Short story writer Katurian (Shawn Fennell) awaits his interrogators in Theatre Intime’s production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

Gruesome Murders and Torturous Tales Highlight “The Pillowman” In Theatre Intime Revival of McDonagh’s Recent Broadway Hit

Donald Gilpin

More than 400 years after Shakespeare’s tragic “pillowman” Othello first took Desdemona’s life in their bedroom by smothering her with a pillow, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh created The Pillowman (2003), a contemporary horror story with more than one pillow-murder of its own.

The Pillowman, however, winner of the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play during its initial run in London and nominated for a Tony Award for best play on Broadway in 2005, is an entirely different genre than Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Mr. McDonagh’s creation, in the same curious vein as his Tony-nominated The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), can perhaps best be described as black comedy — careening unexpectedly between horror and farce, replete with violence, with an occasional sprinkling of social commentary.

The Pillowman is the story of the police interrogations of a short story writer and his mentally defective brother, who are arrested in connection with the murders of several local children. The play, currently in a Theatre Intime production on the Princeton University campus, concerns the subjects of child abuse and infanticide; the effects — creative and destructive — of violence on the developing child’s psyche; state-sanctioned violence in the form of police torture; horror and humor and the peculiar relationship between the two; and the creative mind and its affinities with violence and perversion.

“The Pillowman” runs for one more weekend, April 3-5 at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit for tickets.

But, more essentially, The Pillowman is a play in celebration of the powers of storytelling and an exploration of the nature and purposes of narrative art. As the main character Katurian (Shawn Fennell) responds to the harsh interrogations of Police Detective Tupolski (Max Rosmarin) and his assistant Detective Ariel (Kut Adogan), Katurian pleads innocence (“Are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child-killings in them because in the real world there are child-killings?”) and repeatedly asserts the value and importance of his stories.

Katurian responds violently to the suggestion of his brother Michal (Damian Carrieri) that Katurian’s hundreds of stories are “just paper.” “If they came to me right now,” Katurian declares, “and said, ‘We’re going to burn two out of the three of you — you, your brother, or your stories,’ I’d have them burn you first, I’d have them burn me second, and I’d have it be the stories they saved.”

For Mr. McDonagh, as for his writer-protagonist, it’s the stories that take precedence — far beyond any of the troubling issues raised here, far beyond the value of the life of any character or human being.

Early in the play Katurian speaks for himself and the playwright when he declares, “I say keep your left-wing this, keep your right-wing that and tell me a … story! [The harsh expletives with which McDonagh’s work is replete have been omitted. The shocking subject matter, along with the coarse language, makes this show inadvisable for children.] A great man once said, ‘The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story’ … that’s what I do, I tell stories. No axe to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever.”

And, at the end, Katurian is willing, even eager, to give up his own life so long as his stories are saved for future publication.

The detective story of the interrogations of Katurian and his brother Michal and the case of the child murders are violent and grim, but equally gruesome are Katurian’s tales and the mostly factual stories that Katurian and other characters narrate during the course of the play: systematic parental torture and abuse of young children, a boy’s toes cut off, violent death through eating an apple containing razor blades, the ”Jesus Girl,” who insists that she is the reincarnation of Christ and whose parents are determined to take her at her word and reenact the most grisly details of the crucifixion.

This material is as troubling and difficult to stage, as it is troubling and difficult for the audience. The Theatre Intime company is capable, energetic, and well rehearsed, but much of the carefully crafted interplay between humor and horror does not come across here. Under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Jac Mullen, the Intime production contains the appropriate sense of urgency, the dialogue flows and the pacing is brisk, but the characterizations are not always convincing and the evening falls a bit flat. These characters should be dangerous, violent, psychopathic, but little of the requisite sense of terror and less of McDonagh’s broadly dark humor emerge here.

The simple, functional, appropriately austere set design by Julie Dickerson, with lighting by Laura Huchel, consists primarily of three paint-splattered blank walls, a table and two chairs, and a single light hanging overhead.

This Intime company (which also includes Katy Pinke, Rob Madole, Carolyn Edelstein, and Dan Posen, who are focused and effective in supporting roles) may not fully embody these extreme characters nor deliver the full force of the humor and gruesomeness here, but they deserve, and could definitely benefit from, a more substantial audience than the small handful of supporters who showed up on opening night.

In the Broadway production, which I saw almost three years ago, Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek as the interrogators and Billy Crudup as the writer Katurian created an eerie aura of menace, sadism, and unpredictable brutality, while at the same time bringing out the comedy in this peculiar world and these bizarre characters. It is an odd, uncomfortable evening, and the script should be trimmed, but Mr. McDonagh is a gifted story-teller and a masterful creator of horrific humor.

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