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St. Ed’s Players ‘The Pillowman’ Thrives in Intimate Setting

Mark Witte | Friday, February 15, 2008

There is a show running on the third floor in the back of Washington Hall that you might not know about.

It’s a play about stories: dark, violent stories. It’s a play about truth, lies, torture, little green pigs, slow-motion smack-downs and vehicular beheadings. Most importantly, it’s a play that you don’t want to miss.

The St. Ed’s Players have undergone a courageous endeavor with “The Pillow Man,” which opened yesterday in Washington Hall’s Lab Theater. The play is a work by the young and famous Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh. When it first opened in London at the Royal National Theatre in November 2003, it was to wide acclaim, eventually winning the prestigious Olivier Award for “Best New Play” in 2004.

It’s in these giant footsteps that the St. Ed’s Players are treading.

Director Megan O’Donoghue described the production of the play as having been a “really ambitious challenge,” partly due to the show’s venue.

Unlike a regular theater, where the audience directly faces the performers, the Lab Theater is a “Theater in the Round.” This type of venue places the actors in the center of a stage which is surrounded by the viewing audience. It’s tough for performers because they must constantly shift their position, so as not to have their back facing any side of the audience for too long.

However, the Lab Theater suits this production well.

“Given the scale of this space, the show becomes a lot more intimate,” assistant director Eddie Velazquez said. “It sets the mood for the style of the show.”

The style is stunning, hilarious and horrifying, but also one that psychologically challenges the audience from start to finish.

The story is set in a totalitarian dictatorship, a place similar to East Germany before the fall of the Wall, only more painfully humorous. It follows a few hours in the life of Katurian K. Katurian (Stephen Iwanski). Katurian writes hundreds of disturbing short stories but has only managed publish one in his career.

His parents are dead and his only remaining family member is his mentally-handicapped sister Michala (Katie Manfred), with whom he shares all the gruesome tales he writes. Katurian has a deep affinity with his stories, one that he’ll sacrifice anything to protect.

The play picks up with Katurian being interrogated by two police officers for a pair of child-murders that bear strange resemblance to matching death sequences in Katurian’s stories. One of the officers, Tupolski (Joe Edmunds), is a fast-talking detective whose chief interrogation method is to “disconcert and destabilize the prisoner with asinine nonsense.”

It’s a method that works well, and he starts out by convincing Katurian that the totalitarian dictatorship is not about restrictions, but rather, about guidelines. He also claims he’s the good cop.

The bad cop, Ariel (Joe Vittoria), had a rough childhood – a fact that will get you beaten to a pulp if you bring it up – and he operates on a very short fuse, dealing Katurian beat-downs on a whim. While Tupolski tries to befuddle a confession out of Katurian, Ariel just complains, “Why don’t we just start torturing him and cut out all this s***?”

The play takes a disturbing twist when Katurian finds out that his stories have influenced someone in a profound way. That is, a profoundly sadistic way. But I won’t spoil it for you.

O’Donoghue and Velazquez have done an incredible job with the play’s direction and the actors all spit off their lines with impeccable timing. The interactions between the two cops and Katurian are an absolute riot and constantly tread between the hilarious and the shocking.

Iwanski does an excellent job evoking our sympathy for his character’s imprisonment and feelings for his sister, while at the same time bringing out laughs with the occasional hot-headed outburst. Manfred convincingly pulls off Katurian’s mentally-damaged sister.

The show ironically opened on Valentine’s Day. You won’t find much in the form of materialistic, cutsie-tootsie love, but there’s no lack of beauty.

O’Donoghue said one of the reasons she felt so attracted to the script of “The Pillow Man” was because, “It’s a grotesque story, it’s horrific, but it’s beautiful in the end.”

When you see Katurian recite the full story of the Pillowman to Michala, you’ll know why.

Contact Mark Witte at mwitte@nd.edu.