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By Bridgette M. Redman
Posted: Sept. 23, 2012 at 9:29 p.m.
Does life ever become so horrible that it would have been better to have never been born?
That's one of many questions that the dark drama "The Pillowman" by Martin McDonough asks.
On the surface, it is a play about violent police officers torturing and interrogating a writer and his mentally disabled brother, a string of child killings, and the unspeakably horrible things that adults do to children. Underneath, "The Pillowman" is a story about surviving, loving and the quest for immortality. Using a thoroughly downbeat and creepy story, the play offers up the belief that no matter how horribly the living and the dying, it is better for each individual to have existed and suffered than to never have lived at all.
"The Pillowman" is not an easy script – for those performing it or those watching it. It is an intense, creepy experience that lays out horror after horror. It becomes even more intense in the small space of the Mix Studio Theatre, the backroom of an upscale boutique shop in downtown Ypsilanti. The nearness of the actors and the audience means that no one can escape any of the gore or pain. It is perhaps for this reason that Threefold Productions says that no one under the age of 18 will be admitted to the performances.
Director Sarah Lucas had a wealth of talented actors and technicians to work with, all of whom combined to create a show that was intense and powerful, almost exhausting to watch. She made difficult choices so that the play would work in the space. The storybook scenes broke through the wall of twine and interacted with the characters on stage, bringing them to life in ways that lengthened the play but made those scenes higher in impact.
Evan Mann's Katurian is who makes the story believable and keeps it from crossing the line into spoof or straining too heavily at the audience's suspension of disbelief. He fully experiences everything happening around him, staying constantly in the moment and never anticipating. He provides the full range of emotions, including moments that are heartbreaking as surface feelings war with his deeper ones, and he struggles with situations in which every outcome is tragic. He is also the storyteller, the Greek chorus, and the tale's moralist.
His brother Michal is deftly played by Alastar Dimitrie. Dimitrie manages to find humor while being truly childlike – making some of his revelations even more horrible. He finds a speech style that says as much about his diminished capacity as his movements or the descriptions of the other actors. He becomes nearly the most sympathetic character on the stage, an irony given the twists and turns that the play's story takes.
Jon Ager's Ariel and Sean Sabo's Tupolski effectively play bad cop/good cop and then turn those characterizations on their ears with their unexpected journeys through the story arc. Ager managed to find many faces of anger, all the while making sure that the anger was always motivated.
Luna Alexander's makeup work was excellent, especially on Katurian, who truly looked as though he'd been tortured and beaten, down to the puffy and bruised eyes. She was also responsible for the creepy masks worn by Zach Hendrickson and Julia Garlotte, the storybook characters.
Kevin Young's fight choreography was most effective with the four leads. The violence occurring closest to the audience was so believable that it caused people to wince and cry out. Unfortunately the slaps that occurred behind the twine curtain, furthest from the audience, were too obviously faked, detracting from the seriousness of the action.
The lighting design, courtesy of Jim Costello, was complex and moody. He effectively used darkness, flickering lights and fades into the ethereal story sequences.
"The Pillowman" weaves its way through the three-hour production showing in lurid detail the consequences of mistreating children and the ever-creative spark in each individual to find a way to either act out or change our pasts. McDonagh's tale is twisted, but one that suggests there is hope to be found even in what otherwise seems the most hopeless of situations.
SHOW DETAILS: Threefold Productions' "The Pillowman" continues at Mix Studio Theater, 8 N. Washington St., Ypsilanti, Friday-Saturday through Oct. 13, plus Wednesday, Sept. 26. Running time: 180 minutes, with two intermissions; no admitted under the age of 18. Tickets: $15-18. For information: www.threefoldproductions.org.
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