Haunting “Pillowman” is Powerful & Petrifying

I was very anxious heading to see the Fuller Terrace Five production of The Pillowman last night.  A new mom, off to a three-act Martin McDonagh psychodrama about children being gruesomely murdered — I mean I’ve been crying at episodes of The West Wing for heaven’s sake. But I was very brave and ventured to the Bus Stop Theatre knowing that in case of emotional emergency, I have the perfect four-month-old-at-home excuse which means I can leave any place, any time, and no one gets to question me.

Pillowman was well worth the adventure and here I am the next day still reeling from the multifaceted experience.  We are in a totalitarian police state, where short-story author Katurian Katurian (the exceedingly fierce Jackie Torrens) is under arrest — three children have been killed in ways echoing her grisly plots.  She is being interrogated and tortured by two brutal police officers, Tupolski (Theo Pitsiavas) and Ariel (the inimitable Mary-Colin Chisholm).  They have reasons to believe she and her disabled brother Michal (gracefully played by Matthew Lumley) are guilty of the murders.  It always excites me when a challenging and classic play is produced by strong indie collectives, and the weight of Pillowman, directed by Natasha MacLellan, is carried beautifully, simply, and BONUS: with the fresh breath and imagination of LoHiFi Productions’ haunting puppetry.

Intricate, small-scale sets and stunning shadow-puppetry illustrate the lengthier tales Katurian tells us, and it’s an effective and electric way to bring long texts to life.  In shorter monologues, Katurian’s short-stories are ‘acted out’ by Torrens and Lumley, but the script is so strong and Torrens so captivating I thought a stand-and-deliver approach would suffice.   In a play this dense, very little need be ‘done‘ onstage: the barrenness of the Bus Stop Theatre is embraced, which transforms the all-too-familiar black box. The stillness and precision of Torrens and Lumley’s performances brought heart to the “dark” and earnest to the “comedy.”  Their scene together buzzed with devoted sibling chemistry and a tenderness amidst the high-stake and ultimately appalling conclusion.

The Pillowman has been named (by Buzzfeed) the #1 play to read, as it “will give you a deeper understanding of how storytelling is powerful and part of everyone’s lives.” The Fuller Five production is a timely presentation here in Halifax, where narratives surrounding issues like the Dal Dentistry scandal and the Rehteah Parsons case come at us fast, furious, and ever-fluctuating.  We are a culture desperate for the explanations of hideous acts, perhaps to classify criminals and place blame on any influences they may have had. This makes them separate and “other,” which may offer a sense of safety.  Katurian is held responsible for three murders — for allegedly committing them, but also for inspiring them through her storytelling.  She values her craft and her stories above all else, they are her identity yet so much more. It’s literally the opposite of my life philosophy, that you should be a PERSON above all else and before your PROFESSION.  But Katurian has little else to be besides a writer, and in McDonagh’s fictitious dictatorship (which may not be so far off from our career-and-goal-obsessed culture), “what you leave behind” is far more important than the kind of person you are.  

As the story unfolds, McDonagh piles on reason after reason behind the violence of his characters, highlighting the cycle of victims becoming abusive themselves.  There are some cases where explanations behind horrific events can even be a source of comfort.  We see this in Katurian’s short story about the titular Pillowman, who saves children from leading terrible lives (…it’s more unsettling than that, you’ll see).  This strikes a warm chord with Tupolski despite his persistent abhorrence of her writing.  The Pillowman is often noted for its twists and turns, but it’s more than a detective ‘whodunnit,’ it’s a study on the ‘WHY-they-dunnit,’ and set in real time, a ‘what-the-hell-are-they-gonna-do-now’…it.

I think I handled the gruesome factor well, and the script is peppered with a few positive spins and those comforting “explanations” that allow the faint-of-heart to stick with the story.  This leaves me to reflect on the ‘type’ of theatre The Pillowman is considered.  The police want to know why Katurian would write such horrifying stories in the first place…kind of the same question one may have for McDonagh in writing, or in Fuller Terrace Five for producing, a play that uses disturbing content to get our minds spinning.  Would I have been as anxious to see the play if adults were murdered and not children…or if I didn’t have a baby?  Do people need such extreme violence and fear, and a certain disgusting factor, to give their attention or even to be entertained?  Am I too sensitive?  Can I make a difference in the world if I’m too scared to face its ugliness?

The Pillowman isn’t for everyone and that is more than okay.  It is a gift to have such a renowned script produced with care and executed so powerfully by these esteemed artists in our community.  And beyond its terrifying premise, it muses on the effects of a person’s actions and the malleable ideas of cultural and individual Responsibility.

The Pillowman runs until March 15th.
At the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street)
tonight 7:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 2 & 7:30 pm.
Tickets $25 for regular admission, $20 for students, artists and seniors.
At the door or Eventbrite (the-pillowman.eventbrite.

Photo by Brent McCombs/AlterEgo photography

About the author

Meghan Hubley

Meghan Hubley is a playwright, poet, sometimes student, and brand new mama

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