Cast overcomes challenges of 'The Pillowman'

CorrespondentFebruary 11, 2013 

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    What: “The Pillowman” by Martin McDonagh

    Where: Theatre in the Park, Raleigh

    When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-16, 22-23; 3 p.m. Feb. 17 & 24

    Tickets: $16-$22

    Contact: 919-831-6058;

Theatre in the Park has taken on Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s 2003 “The Pillowman,” a play equally intriguing, frustrating, moving and horrifying. The strong cast and vibrant direction do justice to McDonagh’s themes, if not always surmounting the script’s many challenges.

The play has many psychological layers and shifting realities. On the surface, it’s about Katurian, a writer being interrogated by a detective and a policeman in an unnamed totalitarian state. Katurian’s stories mirror recent child murders, so the pair threatens and tortures him, hoping he’ll confess to the crimes. When Katurian denies any connection, his interrogators reveal they have his mentally disabled brother Michal next door, forcing Katurian to hear Michal’s tortured screams.

After Katurian is allowed to see Michal, disturbingly conflicting information is revealed about the siblings’ lives and the murders. McDonagh further confounds perceptions with additional contradictions and shocking developments, many of them grisly and macabre.

McDonagh’s themes include the strong bonds of family, the hidden damage of child abuse, and the separation of truth from fiction. He understands the mesmerizing power of storytelling, larding a number of tales into the script.

Director Ira David Wood III doesn’t shy away from the violence and raw emotions, pushing his cast to frightening extremes. Ira David Wood IV grapples successfully with Katurian’s range, from defiant and protective to frightened and resigned. Samuel Whisnant tugs the heartstrings as Michal, his initial child-like reactions masking darker elements. Tony Pender plays detective Tupolski with oily menace, while Michael Brocki gives policeman Ariel a gruff demeanor that hides deep wounds.

The actors are best when they emphasize the subtle, intimate parts of their roles, but they shout too many lines, often obscuring key points. It doesn’t help that Stephen J. Larson’s huge setting incorporates the walls of the theatre, dissipating not only the voices but the play’s claustrophobic world. Director Wood turns some of the stories into films, providing variety but causing awkward shifts of focus from stage to screen.

McDonagh is a clever writer but overwhelms the audience with too many tricks over a long three hours. The strong language and gut-wrenching scenarios will be too much for some, but determined theatergoers should find rewards in this oddly fascinating work.


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