by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Les Waters
Berkeley Repertory Theater, January 12-February 25, 2007
(l to r) Nancy Carlin, Brigette Lundy-Paine and Howard Swain
Don’t let the title fool you. There’s nothing soft or comfy about The Pillowman. Au contraire: Martin McDonagh’s powerful play newly opened at Berkeley Rep is tough, sometimes downright sickening and marked by the macabre humor that is the Irish playwright’s trademark. In Les Waters’ taut, practically flawless production, it is not for the squeamish or faint of heart but for those who can handle it, packs a tremendous theatrical wallop.
McDonagh, the enfant terrible who wrote seven plays in one year (1994), including The Beauty Queen of Leenane, seen at Berkeley Rep several seasons ago, and then retired from the stage with a fistful of kudos at the ripe old age of 26, has an intense and bizarre imagination. Pillowman, about a writer of stories, is filled with stuff that would put the Brothers Grimm to shame. But, even scarier than what comes out of the hero’s head is his situation in the real world.
The scene is a police station in a nameless totalitarian state. Katurian K. Katurian (“My parents were a little peculiar,” he tells the arresting officer re: his name) has been hauled in, along with some 400 manuscripts. Little kids have been disappearing and turning up murdered in ghoulish ways, some of them exactly as outlined in Katurian’s stories. In an adjacent room, the writer’s mentally challenged brother, to whom the stories have been told, night after night, also is being held. There is a good cop (Tony Amendola) and a bad cop (Andy Murray), both adept at changing positions as the situation requires. The question is, as always, whodunit. Or did anybody, actually?
Erik Lochtefeld turns in a bravura performance as the writer. Protesting his innocence, he is anything but innocent, having smothered his parents (Nancy Carlin and Howard Swain) some years before, albeit for good reason. He loves his brother Michal (Matthew Maher), who is occasionally cleverer than he seems, and he loves his writing. The police are threatening to rob him of both, not to mention his life. Lochtefeld is onstage for just about every moment of the long – but never tedious – proceedings and he never flags. Neither do the cops.
Amendola, long a Berkeley Rep favorite, now moved to the wilds of L.A. and TV, is a “gentleman” of a certain age, courtly, literate, occasionally even kind but capable of cruelty even more harsh than his violent partner. Murray, a staple of California Shakespeare Theater, plays Ariel, the sadistic brutish torturer who delights in beatings and electrodes but, in the end, possibly is the more caring of the two. They play off each other like the pros they are, alternately terrifying and infuriating their prisoner. The second act essentially belongs to them. Maher is excellent in his one long scene as the brother, a kind of idiot savant upon whom the plot hinges. Swain and Carlin, real-life husband and wife, are somewhat wasted in small cameos of various mommies and daddies. It all takes place in Antje Ellerman’s clever police station set with occasional music, percussive and mysterious, by Obadiah Eaves.
Cruelty, the cycle of abuse, the value of art, the quality of life and the place of the artist in society – plus it’s very funny. What more could you ask of a play? Well, maybe comfortable pillows upon which to lay your head after you go home. In that case, try a musical comedy instead.