There's little middle ground in reaction to a Martin McDonagh script. Maybe none. Get it or forget it. Love it. Hate it. Admire it. Scorn it. This is especially true of his 2003 exercise in excess, The Pillowman, which opens Know Theater of Cincinnati's 10th anniversary season.
Some viewers will see it as a passionate, inquiring drama that digs into troubling social issues much in the news right now. Others see it as horror-show bombast with an overlay of tinpot polemics that's more interested in shocking audiences than in exploring a topic. There's arguable virtue in both points of view.
In the 1990s, McDonagh, still in his early twenties, erupted on the London theater scene with Beauty Queen of Leenane. It won some prestigious awards on that side of the Atlantic, then snagged four Tony Awards on Broadway. Later, a production at the Cincinnati Playhouse caused at least some of us to wonder what all the fuss was about. Beauty Queen began a trilogy of plays about Ireland that McDonagh completed in 1997 with Skull in Connemara and Lonesome West.
Then came virulent, violent The Pillowman.
Child abuse has been all over the news recently. True, cablecasts fixate on child molestation and the machinations of Internet sex predators. But The Pillowman is obsessed with imaginative ways to torture and murder children: Chop off a boy's toes and he bleeds to death; hide razor blades in apples, then force them down a little girl's throat; crucify a mute child, complete with crown of thorns and spear in the side, then bury her alive.
Whether the murder of a child is more or less heinous than the rape of a child is an argument too soulless to pursue, likewise for arguments about whether graphic descriptions of one are more or less pornographic. Whether the whole thing is a convoluted criticism of Christian beliefs is too complex a discussion for a theater review.
McDonagh describes his play's place and time as "Somewhere" and "Sometime," suggesting a universal anywhere in a conveniently removed era. His character's names, however, imply the Balkans, thus subtly distancing the totalitarian anywhere from either 21st-century England or the U.S., where we don't live in a police state -- not quite, not yet.
Katurian (Todd Patterson) is an author. He has written 400 stories, but few have been published. In all but two stories a child is murdered. Mysteriously, some of his fictional crimes closely resemble murders of children that have come to the attention of detectives Tupolski (Vandit Bhatt) and Ariel (Nick Rose). Did Katurian imagine so many hideous murders? Or did he record elaborate crimes actually perpetrated by his older, mentally challenged brother Michal (Derek Snow)? Still worse, could Michal have read Katurian's stories and acted them out? Are the tales mad fictions or before-the-fact reports? How will Katurian respond when he learns that his brother is guilty? Might he smother Michal with a pillow? If so, would that be an angered revenge or a merciful release?
Good cop Tupolski and bad cop Ariel propose to intimidate, electro-shock and torture the truth out of Katurian. But, as one of them questions, "Which particular truth would that be?" Good question. In pursuit of which particular truth did McDonagh write The Pillowman? Why would anybody write such stone cold stories? Why would anyone read them? What need do readers (or theater goers) seek to supply by reading (or viewing) such things? Mental purgation? Some extreme form of catharsis? An idle little thrill?
Both Katurian and Michal were abused as children. Likewise Tupolski and Ariel. Is that just a little pervasive and single-tracked for a drama's good?
For Know's production, artistic director Jason Bruffy has staged the overlong script at breakneck speed with trainwreck intensity and, less happily, with trainwreck subtlety. Andrew Hungerford designed and lit the dank, depression-inducing set. Four strong men, one of the ablest casts Know has fielded, play four broadstroked characters at full throttle from the play's first angry line through its last sad, bloody gasp. Patterson seems young for the role of Katurian, but nicely balances pathos, fear and defiance. Snow weathers some problems inherent in mentally challenged Michal's dialogue. He must seem slow of thought but still be very articulate. Snow's eyes lose focus. His head nods in a tic. He scratches. He manages complex sentences smoothly without seeming either to recite or to be shamming the mental deficiency.
Strongest among the strong, Bhatt turns in the evening's most fully varied, illuminated performance. His Tupolski carries layers of flesh. Ever persuasive Rose is somewhat less so than usual. His Ariel has a single manic tone and the curious accent seems affected. The interrogation scenes play in whiplash staccato. The dialogue is oratorio-like with emphatically echoing lines. The result is musical but emphasizes how overwritten the scenes are. Questions are asked. Too few are answered. Grade: B
THE PILLOWMAN, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 10. See performance times, buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.