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I didn’t plan my trip to Media’s Hedgerow Theatre Company very well. Sure, I took the train out of Philadelphia, but Google Maps led me down a dangerous, busy road with no sidewalks. I hadn’t eaten before the show either, but none of that mattered for two hours and 30 minutes, because I was in the shocking, bloody world of Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman, as interpreted by co-directors Marcie Bramucci and Megan Bellwoar.
The Pillowman is set in a dystopian fascist state, where fiction writer Katurian (James Kern) and his brother Michal (Daniel Romano), who has an intellectual disability, are being interrogated within dingy police station rooms by two detectives, Tupolski (Pete Pryor) and Ariel (Stephen Patrick Smith). The brothers are questioned over a recent series of child murders which closely resemble Katurian’s short stories. Katurian claims that he’s innocent, while the policemen, often violently, insist on his guilt. I’ll leave the rest of the play’s action for audiences to discover themselves, but the question of what Katurian has done, as a writer and human being, only deepens in moral ambiguity.
What are your stories worth?
Joan Didion said “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The Pillowman grapples with the full implications of this question, as well as others inherent to Katurian’s story. What would you give up in order to preserve these stories? Your life? The happiness of your child? And are these tales even worth telling if they can be misinterpreted as lessons or values?
As with his films, including In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh poses these questions within an absurd framework, thick with hyper-verbal dialogue, jokes, and small acts of brutality. At worst, his language can feel in love with itself. Nevertheless, the way his characters repeat themselves, trying to better come to the point, becomes increasingly meaningful in a work about what exactly the right combinations of words can achieve.
This is certainly a difficult play to tackle, and speaking as an autistic writer, I find McDonagh’s treatment of Michal, a disabled character who occasionally becomes comic relief, sometimes cringeworthy. But I also wouldn’t deny the tragic power of Katurian and Michal’s relationship, or the humanity in Kern and Romano acting together. Pryor and Smith are also excellent as the police officers, with Pryor’s ability to rapidly adjust his voice from “dudes rock” friendliness to bellowing menace proving especially useful near the end.
This Hedgerow production discovers the right balance in tone as well, with big, bleak laughs and jarring violence sharing the same scene. (The opening-night audience, often either gasping or cracking up, seemed riveted throughout.) One bit of set design that works especially well is the background center “screen” opening up when Katurian tells certain stories, as actors silently enact his fables with humor and eerie presence.
I still wouldn’t call The Pillowman true horror—not in the spirit of the Samhain season, anyway. But here there absolutely be monsters, and the nightmares of the fictional and the everyday. There are also moments of kindness and love and tenderness, often from surprising, unexpected places. There are no ghosts or ghouls in McDonagh’s play, but any Philly-area theatergoers looking for a truly haunting, gripping time this October should head to this production of The Pillowman.
What, When, Where
The Pillowman. By Martin McDonagh, directed by Marcie Bramucci and Megan Bellwoar. $35 ($20 for students). Through October 31, 2022, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Media. (610) 565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.
Recommended for ages 18+; performance contains graphic language, depictions of violence, and mature themes.
Hedgerow has reduced its seating capacity; masks are optional inside the theater.
Hedgerow is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Call the box office or email [email protected] with specific seating needs. There will be a relaxed and audio-described performance of The Pillowman on October 22 at 2pm, and open-captioned performances October 19-23. Visit Hedgerow’s accessibility page for more info.
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