Not-So-Sweet Dreams

E+A Productions tackles the difficult 'Pillowman' as its very first production

You'll watch with rapt fascination. You'll laugh at the most improbable things and the most unlikely circumstances.

However, you may tire of sitting through a production that runs almost three hours.

But if you do go to The Pillowman, the dark and provocative play that's E+A Productions' first offering, you'll exit the theater having had your sensibilities given a good shake. It may take a while to get your head screwed back on straight. But that's a good thing.

The playwright, Martin McDonagh, is known for pushing the envelope of black comedy. Though his plays have been criticized for their violence and their warped humor, their intensity and brilliant language have won the English-born Irishman plenty of acclaim. His screenplay for In Bruges was nominated for an Oscar in 2008. The Pillowman was nominated for a Tony for Best Play in 2005.

Some think that The Pillowman is a response to the criticism of his earlier plays, all set in rural Ireland. Others see it as an emphatic declaration of the necessity of artistic freedom. Whatever one concludes—or doesn't—about the point of The Pillowman, it's impossible to deny that when you purchase a ticket and take your seat, you are in for one wild ride.

The story takes place in an ill-defined totalitarian state; the authorities appear to police writers and nurture a lust for torture.

Katurian (Jonathan Northover), a prolific writer, has been brought in for questioning, although he can't imagine why. His stories are not political; however, his interrogators point out that many of his stories involve the torture, mutilation and death of children. Yes, but does this make him a bad man? Well, it might. There have been three cases of murdered children in the town, and all three were executed in fashions detailed by Katurian in his stories.

But he is just a storyteller, he declares. His stories are fiction; they mean nothing. His stories deal with children and brutality, true, but that doesn't mean that he actually brutalizes real children. Does it? Perhaps Katurian's mentally deficient brother, Michal, also in custody, was driven to commit such horrid acts at Katurian's urging.

And so questions raised by McDonagh begin to emerge. What responsibilities does the artist have? Does art imitate life, or does art manipulate life? Do we write our stories, or do our stories write us?

To further complicate our thinking, we learn that as a child, Katurian and Michal were the subjects of a bizarre experiment at the hands of their parents. In an effort to nurture Katurian as a writer, his parents tortured Michal in an adjoining bedroom, intending that Katurian hear. Eventually, Katurian killed them to save his brother.

McDonagh is having more than a bit of fun with all of this. And so are we, although we are quite horrified that we are.

The extremes of this piece make it challenging to bring to life, and despite some good performances, E+A does not make The Pillowman the stunner it could be.

Noteworthy is Brian Wees' portrayal of Michal. It's a difficult role requiring a sensitive approach, and Wees excels. Northover, as Katurian, provides a grounded, sympathetic character with a naturalistic bearing, but his Katurian is rather bland. He lacks the energy—and depth—that should drive the story. Without this energy, the production grinds rather than charges.

Also problematic are the interrogation scenes that bookend the play. Director Eugenia Woods has made an odd choice by casting Richard Chaney as Tupolski, the chief interrogator. Is this an actor simply in over his head, or is his puzzling characterization—he plays Tupolski as a bitchy queen—Woods' idea? Whatever the answer, his interrogation scenes are deficient and fail to launch the play's action.

Cecil Averett has composed some wonderful music, but during some scenes, it's played at a very low volume. It's not clear whether that's on purpose or whether it's the result of some mistake or technical problem.

Also distracting is the director's decision to flash animations from time to time on a small screen above the set. Suggested by Katurian's stories, the animations are an interesting idea, but their use is so limited, they don't really enhance the production.

The Pillowman is a strange, difficult and intriguing play, and E+A gives it a sincere effort. The new company was brave to tackle it as its premiere production; that courage shows that this group is one to watch.

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