“The Pillowman” by Martin McDonagh is a divisive play with a dedicated cult following that is rarely performed by community theatres due to both it’s extremely mature content, and the intense demands of a small cast of actors. I have to say I was a bit skeptical when I heard that Vagabonds would be staging this play about an imprisoned author whose stories have eerie similarities to a string of child murders. I’m quite happy to say that all of my skepticism turned out to be groundless.
The moment you walk into the theatre you come face to face with a dank, peeling, 1984-esque interrogation/torture room expertly designed by Joel Selzer. The sound design of disembodied footsteps above and all around the audience forces us to feel the intense claustrophobia and paranoia the main character Katurian must feel while imprisoned before the show even starts. Multiple times I saw audience members clearly disturbed by the sound design, so the goal was effectively achieved.
The show is a small cast of actors, only four. Unfortunately, all of the actors of this production were white and male. Although that is how the show is traditionally cast, one would have hoped that there would have been room to cast more diversely/creatively. With that being said, there was some exceptional work done by these men.
Stephen M. Deiniger and David Shoemaker as the two detectives interrogating Katurian about his stories, achieve an immense amount of tension that they expertly cut with the dark comedy coursing through the play. Mr. Deiniger is especially talented in that regard. One moment he’d have the audience completely silent because of the emotional intensity and then the next we’d be cracking up. Shoemaker brought a smooth interpretation to a character usually described and played like a “bulldog. “It worked about 95% of the time, and I really commend him for playing against his type with this character. He especially reaches wonderful heights in the revelation of his past with his father. Both men played their characters with truth, and held their own with undeniably tricky material.
The lead actor, Michael Kranic, who plays Katurian the imprisoned author, unfortunately, fell flat for me. When acting, they say to emote to the back row of the theatre, well Mr. Kranic was emoting for the corner store three blocks away. In a word, his performance was overdone. I don’t want to diminish Kranic’s talent as an actor, he seems to definitely have some raw potential and I’m very much looking forward to seeing him in other shows. However, this was just not the right role for him. McDonagh tends to have a very specific style in his prose that’s almost lyrical, and Kranic just did not grasp the style of the show in terms of the words, pacing, or rhythm of the script. Nor did he understand how to play a dark comedy. Long story short, I want to see more from him because he seems talented, but this was just not a good role for him to showcase what he can do.
Last, but absolutely not least, is Paul Valleau as Michal, Katurian’s mentally slow brother who is imprisoned next door. Valleau plays his character with a craftsman’s ability. Almost every single second of his performance is sheer perfection. Talk about understanding the specificity of a McDonagh show, Valleau completely embodied everything about the show and the character. It was a truly remarkable performance that captured the innocence and depravity of an immensely complex character.
Director Eric C. Stein really proved his chops with this show. It was expertly staged with never once seeming over staged. The whole production seemed to flow as one cohesive unit, every piece contributing to the whole. Well done Mr. Stein.
One last note before I go. This show is graphic and contains incredibly R-rated language. However, I was incredibly disappointed at the number of audience members who walked out during the show. No not at intermission, DURING the show. I counted three people who walked out during the first act muttering about the cursing, clearly upset by it. Then when Act Two started, it was clear many others, offended by the language, had left during intermission. During the show one audience member even loudly commented: “There’s a lot of ‘fucking’ going on” referring to the number of times the word ‘fuck’ was used during the show. I have one question to ask: is this really where we are as a theatre community? Can we not even get through a show that explores relevant and necessary themes simply because of its language? McDonagh isn’t an idiot; every single word in his script is there for a very specific reason. His work exists to make us uncomfortable as a means of challenging the way we view the world in which we live. He challenges us to identify with characters and ideologies we never would have thought possible and then laugh at the absurdity of it all. If you are unable to understand that, and are too offended by the word “fuck” to sit through a play with incredibly relevant and necessary themes, then you are missing out on many great works of theatre because of your own preciousness. I really hope what I witnessed was a fluke and not indicative of where we are as a community theatre as a whole.
Should I stay or should I go? Go, go, go. It is a marvelous script that is well acted and directed. I also have to give major props to Vagabonds. They deviated from their normal offerings and took a major risk and it paid off. I really hope and pray that they continue down this path and continue to illicit provactive newer plays that challenge their core audience. (B)