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Brilliantly dark: “The Pillowman” play shines at Stanford

By Dean Schaffer | 2 Mar 2011

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Michal anxiously talks to his brother Katurian in their holding cell, during a scene in "The Pillowman," a play performed this week at Stanford. (Photo: Wyatt Roy)

“I think the world is a pile of shit,” Detective Tupolski says with a snarl. Caught on a razor’s edge between terror and humor, suspense and absurdity, the audience can’t help but laugh. In Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s award-winning  drama “The Pillowman,” directed at Stanford University’s Prosser Theater by Bay Area veteran Peter Meyers, nothing is simple, and even the most horrific tragedies in human experience can come to an uneasy truce through comedy.

The play debuted in London in 2003 and has won two Tony Awards. Producer Nathaniel Nelson, a senior at Stanford, chose to produce the play for his senior project after reading it to his friend, senior Max Sosna-Spear. Sosna-Spear agreed to play the show’s protagonist, Katurian, which he did with devastating mastery.

Now that the play’s Stanford run has ended, the cast is attempting to bring its production to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a four-week drama festival in Scotland that includes over 2,000 shows every August, and San Francisco’s own Fringe theater, which gives independent theater groups a chance to perform for two weeks in September.

The action of “The Pillowman” begins with Tupolski interrogating Katurian, a largely unsuccessful author of short-stories—many of which end with the gruesome murder of children, the result of Katurian’s own traumatic childhood. Tupolski tag-teams the questioning with his bad-cop partner, Ariel, who has a zeal for keeping kids safe matched in intensity only by his almost maniacal urge to make child abusers suffer.

Katurian at first thinks his arrest is political, that the totalitarian government has somehow found traitorous messages in his stories. Katurian promises to betray his work and change anything the police wants, if only Tupolski and Ariel will let him go.

But this is not a play about politics or the importance of free speech and artistic expression. The interrogation soon reveals that, along with his mentally retarded brother, Michal, Katurian is accused of murder. Three children in town have died in ways that seem to copy the elaborately torturous killings depicted in three of Katurian’s stories.

Katurian sits in the interrogation room when Detective Tupolski enters. (Photo: Wyatt Roy)

Katurian himself narrates a few of these stories at different moments of the play, depicting shocking acts of senseless, horrific violence, of razorblades and amputations and torture and crucifixions—all of which have been visited upon real children in recent weeks.

Juxtaposed with the revelation of these horrors, Tupolski and Ariel, played marvelously by seniors Harley Adams and Sam Pressman, respectively, engage in repartee that, at times, recalls Shakespearean comic repartee, but darker and even less predictable. Their dialogue careens back and forth between the slapstick comedy of old friends in a love-hate relationship and the rage of frayed nerves, personal trauma and tragedy. As Tupolski, Adams brings an irresistible energy an undeniable presence that captures his character’s mix of professionalism and capricious cruelty.

As the plot unfolds, as the characters expose even more horrors, the play threatens to collapse on itself by poking holes in the concept of language itself. Are words to be trusted? How can we believe what others say, and how can we control the way others perceive what we ourselves say? The piece is saved by the strength and craft of McDonagh’s writing and storytelling, even if the script does lag in a few scenes.

With more interrogations, a devastating heart-to-heart with his brother Michal and the looming threat of his execution, Katurian demonstrates a profound commitment to his stories as a manifestation of his own self-worth, despite his earlier willingness to abandon his writings to imagined political hysteria. Stories—both the ones that we create and the ones that we live—emerge as both integral to and more important than even their author, reaffirming the lasting value of language, including language that we cannot control.

Stories also form the heart of Katurian’s relationship with Michal, played both endearingly and chillingly by Nelson, even as the same stories become the poison that threatens to destroy their connection and their lives. McDonagh’s world is erratic, cruel and sometimes overwhelmingly tragic, but stories are the medium that allow each character, in his own way, to make sense of the chaos. In today’s world, where extreme child abuse and murder sometimes exceed the fictional terrors of the play, “The Pillowman” itself crafts a narrative from the madness and reveals the human compassion that can and does counteract the insanity.

In an all-student cast, the four main characters shine and deliver knockout performances, managing to elicit as many laughs as chills. With the talented help of  Nelson, costume designer Irys Kornbluth, fight choreographer Dexter Fidler and the rest of his crew, Meyers creates the stark setting of an unforgiving prison in a cold totalitarian state, populated by characters who are unpredictable, passionate and damaged—in short, human.

Lists of upcoming performances at Stanford can be found at the Drama Department’s website and the Stanford Ticket Office’s website.

Photo Gallery: More photos from the play, by Wyatt Roy.

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