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Falcon’s “The Pillowman” Attests to the Power of Stories

Review by Alan Jozwiak of The Pillowman: Falcon Theatre

Once upon a time, in a theatre in Newport, Kentucky, there resided a theatre company who decided to produce a play that was a little bit peculiar. . .

            Now this may sound like a fairy tale, but in Falcon Theatre’s latest outing, stories framed like this appear as the centerpiece of Martin McDonaugh’s play The Pillowman. While this play sounds like a Disney family-friendly play, think again.  The stories contained within The Pillowman are dark, dark as if the Brothers Grimm went emo. The play is so dark that Falcon has the following warning label: “This plays contains graphically violent content.”

In a totalitarian state, fiction writer Katurian (Rory Sheridan) is brought before two police officers on a set of charges that both he and his brother Michal (Michael A. Monks) are accused of supposedly perpetrating. The charges are connected several of the 400 or so stories Katurian has written.  Without divulging too many spoilers, this Kafkaesque premise is played out under threats of torture and certain death by the police officers.

Rory Sheridan’s Katurian really shines when he is interacting with his brother Michal. There is a real chemistry seeing the two brother discuss their situation and it was delightful to watch.  However, Sheridan’s Katurian was not as convincing when he is trying to save his legacy in Act II (Spoiler alert:  You will know what I am talking about once you see the show).  The stakes did not feel high enough for him in those scenes, since they are literally dealing with his life and death. Sheridan is a very capable actor and hopefully this is one part of the play that he will grow into over the course of the production.

As already mentioned, Michael A. Monks’ depiction of Michal was delightful. Monks plays his role as the mentally challenged brother of Katurian with an understated innocence perfect for the part. While only appearing during an extended scene at the end of Act I, he was able to capture the nuances of his relationship with Katurian and his role in the crimes he is accused of in a way that felt authentic.

Police officers Tupolski (Joe Hornbaker) and Ariel (Nathan Tubbs), who integrate Katurian, offset each other nicely.  Hornbaker’s mercurial way of changing his mind is beautifully offset against the hard-edged single-minded Ariel.  Hornbaker plays Tupolski almost like Heath Ledger’s Joker—albeit without the menacing threat of the character. Similarly, Tubbs’ Ariel was a crazy hot-tempered officer who believes in torturing first and asking questions later, but without a menacing aura.

This lack of menace is where I had the most problems with this production. Director Ed Cohen needed to make these police officers more menacing. By defanging them, Cohen gains the ability to highlight the humanity behind these characters, a humanity that would get lost otherwise. However, without that menace, the threats the officers throw at Katurian feel hollow.  Katurian needs to feel like he is in danger every minute of the play and I did not feel that danger coming though during the interrogation as much as it needed to.

Scenic & Lighting Designer Ted Weil created a sparse set of nothing more than a table and chairs which does the job of conveying the stark nature of the interrogation room. In the background, towering above the table and chairs, are large monoliths containing the openings of those Katurian stories which figure prominently in the play.  This is a great reminder of the towering influence they have within the events of the play.

While The Pillowman strikes a few false notes, it is nevertheless worthwhile production.  It made me think about the power of stories and the ways that all writers strive for immortality—and the lengths they are willing to take to reach it.

The Pillowman runs through February 10, 2018, with performances running Thursdays through Saturdays.  For more information on tickets, visit the Falcon Theatre’s website http://falcontheater.net/current-season/pillowman/.