The Pillowman: Extended Through 6 February 2010 – Chicago

Redtwist Theatre Ensemble

Editor’s note: This production runs through 6 February.

Often theatergoers fight to find a spot as close to the action as possible, but few theatres provide as intimate a seat as Chicago’s Redtwist Theatre, whose production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman transports the audience from observer to participant.

The black box theatre’s nearly claustrophobic space shrouds the audience in the unease and anticipation faced by its main character Katurian (Andrew Jessop), who is suspected of several recent child murders that mimic stories he has written. His lengthy interrogation plays out as more movie than play, where each facial expression is as important as each line and the proximity to the violence onstage is unsettling, yet impossible to turn away from.

Choosing to cast a young actor plays to the youthful naïveté of Katurian, who can at times appear foolish in his pleas to save his stories, some of which are performed in mime-like fashion on the sides of the stage. One story includes a memorable performance by the young Marissa Meo who plays out a particularly violent story with childlike jocundity.

Many of these dark tales are read by Katurian to his brain-damaged brother Michal as they await their grim fates. Peter Olyoe plays the childish character well in physical expression and tone. Michal serves more as a springboard for Katurian’s reactions and reasoning than a fully developed character, and at times the connection between the two brothers does not feel complete, but the two actors effectively handle the progression of the scenes from tender to chilling.

Generating the bulk of the audience’s anxiety are totalitarian police detectives Tupolski and Ariel, who switch between taunting Katurian and quarreling with each other. Teasing the notion of good cop/bad cop, they swing between repulsion and pity, yet never fully acquire the audience’s support. Tupolski, played by Tom Hickey, appears egotistical and unforgiving but provides the bulk of levity, which is both welcome and questionable amid such disturbing subject matter. Ariel, reactive and even less forgiving, is convincingly brought to life by Johnny Garcia. The actors’ unique and believable personas play skillfully at the tension between them.

While the topic is heavy, McDonagh’s light and conversational writing speeds the play along. Characters interrupt each other, stutter and repeat each other’s sentences. A lack of lengthy monologues ensures realistic dialogue, making the audience feel less like they’re watching a play and more like witnessing an interrogation from a two-way mirror.

The stark set begins at the audience’s feet, and the slamming of drawers and banging of chairs makes Katurian’s terror tangible. The lighting is at a bare minimum, except during the staging of his stories, which play out as morbid fairytales in bright lights and vivid colors. The desolate staging is perfect for ensuring that the audience is never distracted from the raw story they are watching unfold.

For in the end, The Pillowman is about storytelling. The small interludes of Katurian’s stories are sure to stick with the audience, for they are not only the blackest of black humor, but also terribly clever. The larger arc of the play also includes the dark accounts of violence that affect all four of the main characters. Each man has his own story to tell, and the audience, like a jury, must decide whom, if any, to cast their sympathy.

Director Kimberly Senior’s white-knuckled presentation personifies the play’s notion that storytelling serves as much to challenge as to entertain. The play leaves the audience questioning their reactions, while the in-your-face staging leaves hearts pounding and palms sweating. Redtwist’s stimulating presentation proves they are a theater willing to take risks with their audience. If The Pillowman serves as an indication, the remainder of their season, including productions Equus and Incident at Vichy, will not disappoint.