Arts Listings

The Theater: ‘Pillowman’ is a Knockout at the Rep

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday January 26, 2007

An anxious detainee faces two cops in traditional configuration, tough and charming, for questioning in a bureaucratically, old-fashioned high-ceiling office—where? Everything seems timeless, and foreboding. But of what? The police seem sure, as usual; the suspect puzzled. 

That’s about when the fix—or un-fix—of Pillowman, Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed play now at the Berkeley Rep, sets in. Something like an irridescent fabulousness glows, if sometimes luridly, from the told and retold modules of the questions, hesitant responses, stories and situations that follow, rendering the often intense black humor of its London-raised (and streetwise) Irish writer paradoxically light as a feather—though telling, in the sense of what’s underscored. 

Later, after final curtain, when asked on the street what was playing at the Rep, and telling the questioner it was a comedy about fairytale-like stories that lead to the horrible deaths of children brought a slow, puzzled look. A glib synopsis, but true—and the audience laughed, and stood up at the end.  

Koturian K. Koturian is, in fact, not just a suspect, but a storyteller, a writer since childhood—though only one story has been published (“The Town on the Other Side of the River,” which Koturian reads aloud to the detective), in a magazine titled Libertat, that for a fleeting moment (there are many fleeting moments in Pillowman, but all will return to be rehearsed) seems to be the problem: political? Code? It seems to reference “The Pied Piper.” 

Koturian remarks, “It’s the children the Pied Piper was after; in my opinion, he brought the rats. He knew the townspeople wouldn’t pay him.” But no, it’s something else. (So much for lit. crit.) Koturian hears his brother scream from another room, his “spastic brother,” as the tough cop put it. Why is either of them involved? Children have disappeared. Koturian’s Kafkaesque tales have, as repetitive incident, the detective repeats, the brutal fate of children (which the audience might associate with Grimms’ Fairy Tales). Children in the town have disappeared, some later found, killed monstrously. Is Koturian responsible—or has someone re-enacted his stories in the most horrible details, of which the officers offer awful evidence? 

MacDonagh’s super-lucid, deliciously tangled tale is shaggier-than-thou, yet gets woolier, to explosions of laughter, especially at the strangest, hoariest points. There are double reverses that switch back a hundred-and-eighty degrees again. Every bit of territory is gone over at least twice, often in arch pantomimes of comportment, similar to the time-killing games in Beckett’s plays and novels. (Another McDonagh play carries, as title, the obsessive line from Lucky’s Waiting for Godot speech: The Skull in Connemara, but whatever borrowing there may be--and both tell of the appalling urge to tell tales—each detail is recast in a different tone, a very genial and hair-raising raconteur’s voice.) 

Koturian’s stories are enacted on a stage on stage, behind a scrim, one (just as wild as the others) apparently autobiographical, concerning his happy childhood, and the torture of his brother by his parents. Another is of a young girl who imitates Christ, down to wearing sandals and a beard—and her evil foster parents who put her through her icon’s passion. Even the cops begin to tell Koturian stories, whether of their own life or imaginative, but to give a world view (”I think the world is shit. That wouldn’t be a world view, though, would it?”) Contradictions, threats, confessions, the reassurances and seeming betrayals of his “special” brother--the intermittent awareness that none of what’s avowed might be true ... 

The strange, half-lulling, half-jolting tone is original to McDonagh’s piece, bringing a few vague hints of, yes, Kafka, or of the bittersweet plays and narratives of Beckett’s friend, Robert Pinget. Yet the only other full-length play of relatively recent date that’s been as original in memory (after six years of reviewing) is the Iranian Death of Yazgird that Darvag played at the Shotgun Lab a couple years back. And Pillowman, if anything, creates its own dramaturgy as it goes along, relentlessly justifying itself as its constituent parts are retold and changed. Antonin Artaud, the poet of modern theater, discussed the origin of Western drama: “In Aeschylus, Man is very evil [”mal” in French—which also means sick], but like a little god on stage ... then comes Euripides, and the juices flow; the floodgates are open—and we just can’t say, don’t exactly know where we are.” This was not a play done to spec in workshops; it follows in the tradition of those who have made an impulse of moment histrionic, and shown it with due immediacy to the community, to others at large. 

This is a breezy parable with a powerful undertow, about a “mere” storyteller and what it takes to insure the survival of his stories—and what is lost instead along the way. All involved deserve praise, from Les Waters’ firm but flexible direction, to the principals: Erik Lochtefeld (both Everyman and banally personable) as Koturian, Matthew Maher (offbeat and hypnotic) as his brother Michal, Tony Amendola (alternating sharp and almost wistful ) and a terrier-like Andy Murray as the cops—and the players in the story tableaux, victims or survivors: Nancy Carlin and Howard Swain, and young Brigette Lundy-Paine, Madeline Silverman, Brendan Reilly and Gabriel Vergez. 

Antje Ellerman’s set, Russell H. Champa’s lights, Anna R. Oliver’s costumes and Obadiah Eaves’ sound and music were all commendable, each adding to the total effect of Pillowman, something you can’t—or don’t want to—put your finger on. 



The Berkeley Rep 

through Feb. 25, 8 p.m. 

Tickets $33-$61 




Contributed photo  

Tony Amendola, Andy Murray and Erik Lochtefeld perform in The Pillowman.