Nothing soft about it – ‘The Pillowman’ disturbs, but might be Genesis West’s best production

Katurian (Jeff Mills, seated) is questioned by officers Ariel (Tom Hinshaw, middle) and Tupolski (Dirk Blocker, right) about crimes he says he did not commit.

April 23, 2008 8:52 AM

Theater director Maurice Lord might have a thing for torture. Not that he likes it. Rather, he seems to have been shaken to the core since the 2004 revelations at Abu Ghraib prison. Or maybe it is just the tenor of the times. Either way, since Genesis West’s resuscitation in 2005, the plays he has directed for his company have been colored in various shades of black, with a sheen of bitter, gallows humor. Sam Shepard’s “The God of Hell” featured an electro-shock chastity belt and a hyper-patriotic salesman/torturer. Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” featured public humiliation and execution as a backdrop for factory workers discussing their tedious jobs.
With Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” — having premiered Thursday at Center Stage Theater — Genesis West has produced one of its best shows, if not one of its darkest. Read the ingredients on the box: patricide, child murder and torture (with and without a quick death to follow).
But — and with Genesis West there’s always a but — “The Pillowman” delivers laughter and some profoundly moving moments. How is this possible?
Playwright Mr. McDonagh has become a familiar name to filmgoers with his recent film, “In Bruges,” which manages a similar blend of comedy and violence and insists on being serious about both. In fact, the two officers we meet at the beginning of “The Pillowman” — one a detective, one a policeman — remind us of the hit men duo featured in his film. Here, though, Tupolski (Dirk Blocker) and Ariel (Tom Hinshaw) interrogate, torture and threaten to kill their main suspect, Katurian (Jeff Mills), for crimes he says he did not commit. As Tupolski reminds us, this is a totalitarian police state, so forget the trial. (Mr. McDonagh never sets the play in a real location, instead placing it in some odd blend of Ireland, big-city America and Eastern Europe.)
Tupolski and Ariel suspect Katurian of a series of gruesome child murders, and their methods come directly from short, unpublished horror stories Katurian has written. The detective has a box-file of Katurian’s collected works, and Ariel has a car battery with a set of electrodes ready to be used to extract a confession. They also have Katurian’s mentally challenged brother, Michal (Matt Tavianini), in a separate cell next door, and they have an incriminating confession from him.
“The Pillowman” — the title comes from one of Katurian’s stories — uses its police-state setting to pitch its ideas about guilt, authorship and child abuse at a desperate level. Katurian’s ability to spin horrific narratives out of a complicated and difficult childhood, and the intersections of reality and fiction that weave in and out of the play, serve to both save and damn him. “The Pillowman” is not one of those plays that intentionally muddles a real and an imaginary storyline, however, but one that precedes like detective work, uncovering clues and reshaping what we believe is the truth as the play proceeds forward in time and backwards in remembrance. It also asks if a miserable life can be worth living and if shreds of hope and love are enough in a life laden with abuse and violence.
But as aforementioned, the play manages to be quite funny, from Tupolski and Ariel’s strange and codependent working relationship to Katurian’s short stories, which taken as literature might never make it out of a writing workshop. Tupolski responds later with a story just as improbable and allegorically confusing as that of the accused. Mr. McDonagh’s banter reveals shades of Irish slang and inflection, but Mr. Lord chooses wisely to keep things in varying shades of American accents.
Jeff Mills and Matt Tavianini both come from Boxtales, their usual theatrical stomping ground, and while playing brothers, they seem well suited to a play centered around storytelling. When Katurian isn’t stuck in a cell being grilled, he is off to the side in a chair telling us stories about his childhood, which are illustrated dumb-show-like on a raised, recessed area of the stage, with Leslie Gangl-Howe and Howard Howe playing abusive, Gothic parents, and Rudy Martinez and Amanda Berning playing the children. Tim Burton would approve of the devilish glee in which Mr. Lord stages these horrible tableaux. (And thanks goes to set and lighting designer Theodore Michael Dolas for making it so mesmerizing).
Mr. Mills and Mr. Tavianini form the emotional core of the play, but Dirk Blocker and Tom Hinshaw are equally delightful to watch. Mr. Lord has worked with Mr. Hinshaw in nearly every Genesis West production — having him play a torturer with a tender streak is one of the director’s most clever choices. Mr. Blocker, who does most of his work in television and film, begins as a stereotypical detective, but then reveals multiple shades and facets.
All of which makes the final moments in “The Pillowman” so jarring, unexpected and grimly satisfying. You can’t say you haven’t been warned.


When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and May 1-3
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo, upstairs
Cost: $25, $20 students
Information: 963-0408,

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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