At the Guthrie, a tale of macabre beauty

By Nikhil Gupta

Once upon a time, there was a man, nine feet tall and made of fluffy pillows. He was the Pillowman. His job was to find all the people whose lives have been horrific and painful, and help them journey back in time to when their lives were filled with happiness, and convince. them to commit suicide to prevent years of sorrow that would lead to the same place anyway. As such, the Pillowman led a profoundly sorrowful life. One day, he decided to do one last job, and met a little Pillowboy under an enormous willow tree. The Pillowboy, who only wanted to help others, readily agreed to the Pillowman’s request and sets himself on fire. Such macabre sadness and beauty fills Martin McDonagh’s play “The Pillowman,” now being staged at the Dowling Studio of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater. The play debuted on Broadway in 2005, earning rave reviews and a Tony nomination for Best Play. It opens in a dark prison cell where Katurian, a writer, has been brought by the police for interrogation about the nature of his writings – sinister and bleak short stories – and their connection to a series of grisly murders occurring in the town. The play then follows the interactions between Katurian, Tupolski and Ariel, his two interrogators, and Michal, his cognitively impaired brother, through brilliant and sparkling dialogue separated by Katurian’s hauntingly beautiful and disturbing stories. Along the way, the play delves deep into issues of censorship and police states, artistic responsibility and, ultimately, human nature itself. The Guthrie brings these themes, along with McDonagh’s sharp wit, sinister imagery, and vibrant characters, beautifully to life in its ongoing rendition of “The Pillowman.”

Throughout his work, McDonagh uses the characters of Tupolski and Ariel to offer an overt and damning critique of totalitarian regimes, particularly in regards to their relation with artists and free speech. Both police officers openly speak of torturing prisoners for information, exchanging banter about how their violent actions could potentially be classified as police brutality. Tupolski jokes about sidestepping constitutional rights, ignoring citizens’ right to a fair trial and instead black-bagging and summarily executing the accused. The witty and often brilliant dialogue between Katurian and his interrogators starkly illustrates the dangers of unmonitored power in the hands of a few individuals, as the two policemen torture and humiliate Katurian for deviant messages in his stories and crimes supposedly committed.

Tupolski is particularly sinister: a faceless, unnecessarily cruel, high-ranking bureaucrat in a totalitarian regime, whose character cannot fail to wield immense power over the audience. Luverne Seifert, who plays Tupolski, brings this dark man to life beautifully, capturing his arbitrary cruelty, callousness, and incompetence deftly. The play’s political criticisms are all the more valuable given the policies of our current government, policies that create spaces for the Tupolski’s of the world to fill. In this manner, McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” offers a timely critique of regimes that restrict and ignore the liberties of their citizens.

McDonagh also explores the notion of artistic responsibility. This issue has profound implications in the modern world, where cartoons in Western newspapers inspire riots in other parts of the world. In the play, Katurian’s stories are beautiful pieces of art, yet are inspiring a series of horrific murders in the city. Through the dialogue between Katurian and the policemen, McDonagh illustrates the ludicrousness of curtailing artistic freedom for public security. When the policemen accuse Katurian of advocating killing children in his works, they are quick to punish without a proper investigation.

But most importantly, McDonagh reaffirms the spark of humanity that exists within us all. Katurian, like Rorschach in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” has a profoundly negative view of human nature, remarking, “There are no happy endings in real life.” His gorgeous stories, interspersed throughout the play, firmly establish his morbid view of the human condition. Yet the characters in the play all reject this pessimistic view of human nature, and through the gloom and morbidity, the torture and violence, the pain and suffering, the play beautifully shows that the spark of hope, of a sense of decency in this dark world, still shines like a beacon in the overcast night.

The majestic work of art that is “The Pillowman” is recreated with splendor on the Guthrie stage. The Dowling Studio provides a near perfect setting for this intimate play (it involves four people and a room). The theater is tiny, with seating for at most 50 people, and the audience sits right next to the stage (in fact they need to cross it to take their seats). The set director Wendy Knox chose suits the play extremely well, capturing the dark imagery of a futuristic totalitarian state while remaining stark and utilitarian. Most importantly, the characters sparkle and delight, bringing McDonagh’s black comedy to life while they convincingly render the profound changes and emotions these characters experience during the play. While Jim Lichtscheidl (Katurian) beautifully renders his character’s innate pessimism and morbidity and Grant Richey (Michal) brilliantly captures Michal’s innocence, my favorite actor was Chris Carlson (Ariel), whose portrayal of a man’s redemption was one of the best parts of the production.

The Guthrie has created a masterful rendition of a wickedly sinful yet moving play. So if you consider yourself a connoisseur of fine plays, I highly recommend making the trip to the Guthrie to view a testament to theater at its most glorious.

“The Pillowman” runs through October 14, 2007, Wednesdays through Sunday. Ticket prices range from $18 to $30. For more information and reservations, contact the Guthrie Box Office at 612-337-2224.