‘The Pillowman’ in the Cellar saves art from a trite death

MartinMcDonough’s Tony-nominated The Pillowman is the best play in the past 10 years about the possibilities, and the perils, of art. (It’s also the best play about exsanguinated children, though the competition for that honor is understandably less fierce.) Part police procedural, part fairy tale, The Pillowman plays a lot like Law & Order: Very, Very Special Victims Unit, as a dozen interlocking tales of warped and mutilated children coalesce in the form of a metaphysical detective story. Yet, for all of its bloodiness, real and imagined, this is a deeply felt play about what makes stories worth saving, and how we humans, for better or for worse, create (and occasionally destroy) our own lives in the telling.

The play begins with the improbably named Katurian K. Katurian (Wade Young) awaiting interrogation in a featureless torture chamber of a totalitarian régime (designed by Deborah Coates, with a spooky soundscape by Ricki Kushner). A struggling writer, Katurian spends his evenings writing charming children’s tales in Grand Guignol style, full of gore and mayhem, but always saved from simple sadism by a brilliant Twilight Zone twist. Katurian is at base an aesthetician: sure, his content might be repulsive (decapitation, lacerations, some truly distressing uses for apples) but at the level of form, these stories can’t be beat — and Katurian knows it.

Unhappily, children have been dying in the sleepy hamlet of Authoritarian Police State in exactly the same manner described in Katurian’s stories, and so the writer and his brain-damaged brother Michal (Andy Thornton) are hauled in for questioning by good cop Tupolski (John O’Neill) and bad cop Ariel (Jim Mammarella). The beauty part is that the structure of The Pillowman plays out like the finest Katurian-penned story ever, beginning with a straightforward, genre-based interrogation but evolving into a mind-bending, time-skewing, phantasmagoria of interlocking narratives, bogeymen, and power drills. At the center of the web, but casting his soft downy pall over everything, is the spectral Pillowman, a sort of guardian angel who turns out to be, well, something of a sham. I won’t give away the Pillowman’s twist, but all is not well in the fluffy neverland of pillow-world (particularly near open flame).

Co-directed by Charles Jeffries and Paula Rodriguez, this is a gripping production, if at times not effective enough in its extremes. In particular, it occasionally misses the piece’s Grimm humor; there’s a lightness of touch to the absurd vignettes that’s flattened in performance. As Katurian, Young is (ironically) too old for the part; the essence of Katurian is naiveté, and while Young is a gifted storyteller, he can’t quite capture the wide-eyed innocence of a prodigy. Thornton, however, turns in a simply astonishing performance as Michal, who revels in his brother’s narrative artistry while skirting, however, its moral implications. (He thereby invites disquieting parallels between himself and the audience: if we love the stories as much as Michal does — and oh, we do, we do — aren’t we a bit brain-damaged, as well?)

O’Neill and Mammarella are effective in their good cop-bad cop personae in the first act but never dismantle that coolness or surliness for the later scenes, even as their own personal stories — as if authored by Katurian — reveal a pillow-y pathos. Mandy Whitlock Muniz, James Hartz, and Asheley Beth Draffan nail their roles as a deliciously dysfunctional family, with costumes designed with day-glo glee by Lori Roman. Draffan’s lighting design achieves some nifty special effects, but too often skimps on the humdrum illumination: in the Pillowman, what’s scariest is what you can see, not what you can’t.

So is The Pillowman the type of production you should take the kiddies to? Yes, if you’d like them never to sleep again; and yes, if you would like them to see a top-notch play performed with verve and even bravery. The Pillowman is unabashedly, even romantically, attached to the idea of art for art’s sake: not because art is comforting, or inspiring, or (egads) family-friendly, but because only art makes the world’s ugliness bearable. Thus Katurian fights to save his stories from the world’s greatest evil — oblivion — with the cunning and the ferocity of the caged. For without our stories, and the wit that transforms and elevates them, we’ve nothing left but our little lives rounded by a quilted, feathery sleep.

The Pillowman
8pm Fri & Sat; 2:30pm Sun
Through Sep 23
$23 adult; $20 senior, military;
$13 student

The Cellar at San Pedro Playhouse
800 W. Ashby
(210) 733-7258


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