Arts & Leisure

“Pillowman” is raw, jarring

“PILLOWMAN” with Patrick Peterson in blue as Katurian, behind him is Lawrence Hemingway as Ariel, and to the right is Scott Keister as Tupolski (GWC photo).

By Thom deMartino/Orange County Tribune

These days, the question “what’s in the box?” tends not to end well.

Bold and challenging productions are frequently a hallmark of Golden West College: a tradition continued with the raw, provocative new staging of “The Pillowman”, directed by Tom Amen.

This one is not for the faint of heart.

A blindfolded man sits terrified in an anonymous interrogation room. Immediately deferring to the two detectives who enter, he insists he has no clue of why he has been detained, he’s never even been in trouble! The cops begin grilling and disorienting him with their double-talk: what does he mean by asking why is he there — how he can -not- know why?

The nervous man stammers, he doesn’t know! He’s never been political, never a protester, there’s never been anything in what he’s written… wait, is this something about his stories? Because he’s just a storyteller, that’s all…

For though his stories are disturbing, even sickening, they can be tolerated when living in this strictly fascist, totalitarian state. Unfortunately for author Katurian (Patrick Peterson) it’s not about anything political – but instead the lurid, ghastly blood-tinged thread betwixt his stories that has the detectives’ interest.

As “good cop” Tupolski (Scott Keister) explains, yes you can write a story … with certain governmental restrictions. But what the grizzled detective and his imposing hair-trigger partner Ariel (Lawrence Hemingway) really want to know about is the disturbing similarities between Katurian’s fictional world and the gruesome murders that have recently shaken the city … and the small box the detective has lain on the table before the author that somehow emanates an aura of dread.

The only two real suspects are the writer and his simple, developmentally- challenged brother Michal (Luke Brodowski): and in a world where those in authority can literally play judge and jury, the pair only have hours before the detectives become their executioners as well.

As their final hour looms, there seems no escape for the brothers — but even in this darkness of hopelessness, can there still be a ray of hope, of humanity?

Take heed: if you are looking for lighthearted entertainment, this is not it.

If you seek something colorful, playful and garish, look elsewhere.

But if you are seeking an intense, demanding exploration into the unplumbed, inky depths of the human soul, this one’s for you.

“The Pillowman” is not fun, per se: nor is it meant to be. But it is powerful, engrossing, and will have the audience leaving the theater in silent contemplation of the postmortem of human nature that they have just witnessed.

While there is a distinct undercurrent of the blackest humor in the Martin McDonagh play, the audience is left to their own devices navigating the many weighty themes of the show: the price of political complacency; where, if anywhere, an author’s responsibility for the content of their work begins and ends; nature versus nurture; the value and power of fiction; and the lessons we internalize and actualize, for better or worse, from family.

One would almost think the term “trigger warning” was invented specifically for this play. If a fascist state cares nothing for the individual, how much less must they care for the marginalized, downtrodden and oppressed? The show’s jarring use of racist language reminds the viewer that civility is a social contract, only as good as the empathy of those who practice it – something discarded in the gutter of this totalitarian society.

The intensity of the cast’s performances is gripping: the timidity of Peterson’s Katurian, metamorphosing to desperate fury when his brother is threatened; Hemingway’s tightly-wound Ariel, seemingly rage incarnate, but concealing his own tragic secrets; Brodowski’s simpleminded, earnest, faithful Michal; and the cunning, cool, calculated menace of Keister’s deceptively affable Tupolski. (There are also stellar, if brief, supporting performances by Carrie Vinikow, Pat Mannion, Taran Silverthistle and Story Gemmati, as they shoulder the harrowing task of playing out some of Katurian’s darkest tales.)

“The Pillowman” is a fascinating, decidedly brutal show, with no easy answers in the end: it is up to the viewer to suss out the deeper inner meaning for themselves, and reflect upon their own reactions to what they’ve witnessed. A challenging think piece that transgresses, even willfully tramples through viewers’ comfort zones, “Pillowman” might not be for everyone, but offers a bleak but powerful look into the darkness of the human soul, and the splinters of hope that lie within.

“The Pillowman.” Patrick Peterson, Scott Keister, Lawrence Hemingway and Luke Brodowski star in this challenging and uncompromising production. Playing through October 16 at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15751 Gothard St, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Tickets available through the box office at 714-895-8150, x1 or at Mature themes and graphic language, not suitable for children.

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