Review: “The Pillowman”

(opened Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007)

Stories spin, blood drips in Berkeley Rep’s creepy `Pillowman’
(Three stars Shockingly good)

Macabre, perverse and compelling, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Pillowman is not exactly what it seems to be.

Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play is part sick-and-twisted horror movie, part police procedural and – here’s the best bit – part exploration of the creative impulse.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
There’s much here to offend the incautious audience member. Indeed, at Wednesday’s opening-night performance a couple in front of me left in the middle of Act 1. Apparently they didn’t find the torture and murder of children entertaining.

But there you have the trick of McDonagh’s play – here is a drama full of shocking details that carefully and quite skillfully navigates the division between exploitation, tragedy and dark comedy.

Clearly this is not for every taste. The language is rough, the blood flows and discomfort reigns supreme.

Except for the fact that this is hardly The Sound of Music, the less you know about The Pillowman the better. This is a play about telling stories – stories left behind as a mark on the world to prove the storyteller existed.

That storyteller is Katurian Katurian (Erik Lochtefeld), whom we meet in a police station in an unnamed totalitarian state (I kept thinking of Texas, but maybe that’s because there’s so much talk of executions).

Katurian is grilled by two cops _ the volatile Ariel (Andy Murray) and the more sedate Tupolski (Tony Amendola) _ about his hobby: creative writing.

The thing about Katurian’s fairy tales and short stories is that most of them involve horrible things happening to children. Though only one of about 400 stories has been published, some of the writer’s fictional mayhem has begun happening in the real world, and the cops think Katurian is behind it.

Nothing good happens in this play, which is essentially about Katurian, his older, mentally disabled brother, Michal (Matthew Maher) and their horrendous childhood at the hands of monstrous parents (Nancy Carlin and Howard Swain playing a far different mom and dad than they just played in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s A Christmas Story).

There’s pulp a-plenty here, what with the good-cop/bad-cop routine and the central mystery of murdered children. But what makes McDonagh’s play so intriguing are Katurian’s stories.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Like children at bedtime, we’re told fascinating tales _ of course they’re horrendous and R-rated _ but they’re fascinating, even when you don’t want them to be. There’s “The Little Apple Men’’ about a girl swallowing razor blades; “The Tale of the Three Gibbet Crossroads,’’ a brief, moralistic yarn; the profoundly creepy “The Little Jesus’’; and the all-too cursory “The Shakespeare Room’’ about the source of Shakespeare’s creativity (hint: it’s a pygmy lady in a box).

“The Writer and His Brother’’ is Katurian’s most autobiographical story, and “The Little Green Pig’’ gives the play some much-needed brightness.

As fascinating as the play is — and it really is shocking and thrilling — there are too many lurches into static patches. On opening night, I fought with director Les Waters’ pacing. I understand stories should unfold in their own time, but I couldn’t help wishing the actors would pick things up. Even discounting a medical emergency in Act 1 (beautifully handled by stage manager Michael Suenkel and Berkeley paramedics), the play is nearly three hours. For a night of stories, that’s just too long.

Amendola and Murray are vivid, vital cops, and Maher’s Michal manages the blend of comedy and drama better than anyone. Lochtefeld as Katurian bears the weight of the play as the evening’s primary storyteller. His scenes with Maher crackle, but his restraint keeps him from coming to life as fully as the people around him.

Waters and his design team — including Antje Ellermann, sets, and Russell H. Champa, lights — find some terrific ways to layer past and present, fact and fiction, delight and horror, which is, after all, what The Pillowman is all about.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
For information about The Pillowman, visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *