There's often some really exciting theater on display in the Old Pueblo. Currently, Exhibit A is the Now Theatre's excellent production of Martin McDonagh's screw-with-your-head-while-punching-you-in-the-gut play The Pillowman.
Recognized for its power with a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2005, The Pillowman is a multilayered story of a story, told by and within many other stories. It's funny and horrible, thought-provoking and off-putting. Like witnesses to a train wreck, we are fascinated and compelled, even though we feel we should be averting our eyes from the carnage. But we can't, because that's who we are.
The Now Theatre is a group incubated by the Rogue Theatre, which itself can always be counted on to produce challenging shows with integrity and fine production values. A young company desiring to take on edgy stuff, Now has had some solid successes as well as some serious missteps. It's a talented group, challenging its members and its audiences, and can be mostly forgiven for lapses and miscues. (Guys, you really should include the playwright's name in the program.)
But there's nothing of much consequence to be forgiven in the troupe's rendering of The Pillowman.
Directed by Now artistic director Nic Adams, who helps take care of the Rogue's business affairs, the play is set in an unspecified time and place, ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship. The regime appears none too friendly to writers, particularly writers the powers-that-be believe have inspired the horrific murders of children.
Katurian K. Katurian (Lee Rayment)—he got this name from parents who were rather unusual, he explains, which we eventually learn is a trifling understatement—has been brought in for questioning and eventual execution. The reason, he is told, is that his stories all seem to be about the death of children by hideous means. As it happens, even though his tales are mostly unpublished, several children have been found murdered in the exact manner Katurian describes in his writing. That makes him culpable, the reasoning goes, although he argues that his tales are simply innocent stories, not an incitement to torture and kill.
His brain-damaged brother, Michal (Brian Johnson), has also been brought into custody, and the police show no mercy in taking advantage of his lack of wits to get to Katurian, who is terrified that his brother will be harmed. He has always felt protective of Michal, and there's a good reason for that: Michal was sacrificed by their parents in an absolute horror of an experiment designed to develop the creative impulse in Katurian.
Now, Katurian must defend his right to creative freedom, doing what needs to be done to make sure his works are preserved—even if his life isn't. But within what boundaries should that be done?
This plot summary is perhaps accurate enough but, as with all theater, the story is merely the starting point for an experience. Adams and company give us an unforgettable one.
Rayment as Katurian gives a remarkable performance in a grueling role. Although McDonagh has made sure Katurian's numerous character traits and actions are wide open for interpretation, Rayment has made sound choices and commits to them wholeheartedly. His Katurian's complexities are layered thickly, and Rayment draws our sympathetic interest, even as he disturbs us.
Matt Bowdren and Nick Trice convincingly and alarmingly interpret McDonagh's outrageous version of the good cop-bad cop routine while representing the repressive regime. And Johnson embodies a sweet and sad Michal, the only one in this bizarre crew who comes close to touching our hearts, even though his actions, it seems, are agonizingly repulsive.
Adams has chosen a stark and simple setting for the tale, which works well. Stories abound. As we watch the story that is the play, other stories are read to us. Some are spoken and illustrated with shadow puppets. They all are appalling and spellbinding.
So what is McDonagh doing here? It's not totally clear, and what he might be suggesting is not always defensible.
Should freedom of creative expression trump its potentially negative consequences if wrongly interpreted? (Should individual freedoms be limited to diminish the likelihood that some tortured individual will acquire an assault gun and shoot mercilessly into a crowd on a sunny weekend morning?) Should we survive a miserable childhood only to live in the misery that that childhood will guarantee? Or might a soft and safe Pillowman show us a pleasant way out?
What informs the extent to which we will sacrifice to nurture creativity? How does art intersect with governance? Do we tell our stories, or do they tell us?
McDonagh's approach is heartless. There is no sweetness in his tale. He challenges our minds with sensibly constructed senselessness, which then lands with a thud, a splat, an explosion in our viscera. Maybe some creative impulse within us can translate it all into something that might nurture our spirit. But that's up to us.
So, maybe the more important question is, what are we doing here?
If you are lucky enough to see this production—and you should—be prepared to sit in shock for a few minutes when the house lights go up. As you rise from your seat, stand a moment and let your blood resume its flow to your legs. What you recognize as your normal state of feeling will return eventually.
However, you will never be the same when some innocent pleads, "Tell me a story."