Thursday, March 05, 2020

Stories We Could Tell: A Rather Solid Take on 'The Pillowman' at The Gift -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Pillowman
a play by Martin McDonagh
directed by Laura Alcalá Baker
The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 29

I first saw Martin McDonagh’s chilling drama, The Pillowman, in 2006 at Steppenwolf, and enjoyed it immensely.

It helped that Michael Shannon and Tracy Letts were both in it, and I still recall Jim True-Frost being fantastic.

At the end of 2009 I would rank it as one of my favorite plays of the decade.

And then, early in 2010, I also loved a version I saw early in 2010 at Chicago’s Redtwist Theatre, and would cite it as the top play seen in that year.

So I was very much looking forward to seeing it once again, now staged by one of Chicago's best storefront theaters, The Gift, in Jefferson Park.

I still very much liked it, and--particularly for fans of McDonagh and/or those who have never seen The Pillowman--would definitely recommend it.

The acting, led by Martel Manning as Katurian--a writer being interrogated by cops because grisly
scenarios from some of his stories have been enacted in real-life--is excellent, and good chunks of the play remain absolutely riveting.

But for whatever inexact reasons, I can't say I loved this rendition as much as past productions, as best I recall and per ratings I keep in a Shows Seen database.

Now, although I believe I maintained consciousness and pretty good focus across nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes (including intermission), a Monday night performance on a workday may well bring challenges beyond the material itself.

Especially in a first act that seemed to go on and on.

Yet while I feel it apt to note not quite being blown away--due to long thinking of The Pillowman as one of my favorite plays--this is still very much a positive review of a fine production of a work of tremendous imagination.

And the truth is, that as much as I regard the Irish-British McDonagh as among the very best contemporary playwrights, and now also a fine screenwriter and movie director, various works of his--plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West and films In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Seven Psychopaths--have left me hotter or colder, sometimes across different stagings or viewings of the some piece.

But at the very least, The Pillowman warrants your awareness, and director Laura Alcalá Baker does some nice things with this iteration.

To begin, whereas past casts have typically been all male, here Cyd Blakewell is terrific as she handles the role of Topolski, the "good cop" interrogating Katurian in a dingy, seemingly Eastern Bloc jail cell, along with "bad cop" Ariel (Gregory Fenner, who is also quite good).

That Manning and Fenner are both African-American further illustrates how talented performers of differing backgrounds than those seen before in the same roles can considerably adjust the context and tonality of a play in intriguing ways.

Rounding out the cast at the Gift is Jay Worthington as Michal, the mentally addled brother of Katurian, who has also been brought in for questioning.

I think it best for me to avoid further details, but should mention that the purported crimes are quite dark--as are, interconnectedly, Katurian's stories and matters of family history & psychology.

But there is also much more going to The Pillowman than merely a crime mystery.

Which is why McDonagh's script spends so much time in the telling--and even acting out--of several of Katurian's stories.

And while stellar drama often offers a good deal of relevance no matter when it's seen, the idea of a creative storyteller facing off against an authoritarian state, well, hello.

So if you see The Pillowman and absolutely love it, I can readily understand why.

And if your regard for the play is a bit more middling, it's also entirely possible for you to like it far more on a subsequent encounter.

Or a previous one. 

1 comment:

Al said...

I was lucky enough to catch it before the Quarantine, and was astounded by what a great piece of writing and performing it was (bought the screenplay)! Each story is like a bite-sized "Twilight Zone" episode, and it's phenomenally thoughtful in exploring the inspirations and expressions of dark thoughts. This extends wonderfully into the presentation - did the earlier incarnation use puppets and dioramas to such amazing extent?