Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman is both moving and disturbing, and on Monday, March 21st, director Trevor Belt and his cast did it justice. Those of you who haven't experienced this dramatic piece of theatre need to make it down to the Westbottoms this weekend while you still have time. Musician Caleb Hopkins set the mood with the eerie sounds of an old piano – it's slightly out of tune, but it really added to the ambiance of it all – and the audience knew they were in for a trip, especially as they took their seats so close to the action.
The play opens in an interrogation room where Katrurian, played by Coleman Crenshaw, is being questioned and beaten by Tupolski and Ariel (Rick Williamson and Matt Leonard, respectively) over the recent murders of children who have met their demise in the same fashion of the characters in Katurian's short stories. It is soon revealed that they are also holding his mentally retarded brother, Michael (Jeremy Frazier) in another room. Without revealing any plot points, things get crazy and there is a lot of stage blood. Throughout the play, the audience sees many of Katurian's stories acted out by Cheryl Barker, Jared Walters, Alice Pollack, and Quinton Barker, all of which did a wonderful job with the mostly silent characters.
Crenshaw's performance as Katurian started out slow. When the lights came up and he was sitting there blindfolded, being startled by the sounds of Williamson in the room, it felt really contrived. I was not convinced. However, the further into the production (and the bloodier he got), Crenshaw became more and more believable. Once he hit his pace, he delivered an amazing character with real human emotions. You couldn't help but feel for him as he was being mistreated, even while you doubted his innocence. His interactions with his brother were the highlights of his performance, showing a wide range and severe dedication to his character.
Williamson as Detective Tupolski was brilliantly funny. The man was so hilarious that you felt bad for laughing so hard when the topic of the play is such a serious one. His witty banter and sarcasm was perfect for his role as the "good cop" and you can't help but like him. However, when his personality takes a meaner turn in the third act, the previous nice-guy demeanor doesn't hold him back from laying down the law. The switch seemed a little over done to me and I feel it would have benefitted Williamson to pull back on the anger a little bit. Because the audience was so fond of him and his pleasant behavior from earlier in the play, it's almost a shock to the system to see him so different at the end. Other than that small critique, a spot on job.
Frazier had a hard task ahead of him when he was cast as a mentally handicapped man. There is always the risk of over doing it and making it seem cartoonish and offensive. However, this was not an issue for him. Frazier played Michael more like a boy trapped in a man's body and it was so natural that I'm sure he must be a fun loving guy, in touch with his inner child. Michael suffers more from ignorance, or even innocence, than he does from a lack of intelligence; Frazier hit the nail right on the head. You only ever see him interact with Katurian, but that's all you need to fall in love with him.
I saved Matt Leonard for last for a few reasons: (1) I consider him a good friend, so I'm slightly biased, (2) I've got a lot to say about his character, and (3) my favorite part of the show involves him specifically. Leonard's character Officer Ariel is, without a doubt, the bad cop. For reasons later revealed, he hates Katurian and has no problem showing that hate with his fists (all of that stage blood is entirely his fault). For the majority of the play, Ariel seems pretty two dimensional: a slightly sadistic cop who really enjoys "interrogations" and cigarettes. Let's talk about the cigarettes. I'm fairly certain he went through at least a pack and a half over the course of the production. I understand that it is in the script and a staple for his character, but that is overkill. If you are sensitive to tobacco smoke, be sure to sit in the back because he is smoking like a chimney. Leonard uses it to show his character's anger and frustration, but I think we get that enough from his facial expressions and physicality. He gets so into it that he speeds through each cigarette in half the time it should take to smoke. He also made the decision to do the scene changes with a lit cigarette in his mouth. Again, maybe it's because I don't want my friend's lungs to shrivel up, but I think I would be concerned even if I didn't know the actor. Ariel's rage is very passionate and violent – Belt had everyone yelling a lot so Leonard had no choice but to crank it up to eleven since his character is supposed to be the loose cannon. I think it would have been just as effective, if not more, for him to have a seething rage, rather than a loud one. And everyone was pretty loud (shouting in such a small performance space might have something to do with it). But we did get to see the more understated emotions of Ariel in the third act and that is where my favorite part is. When Tupolski has flipped to "bad cop" it makes sense for Ariel to swap with him. Leonard has a beautiful moment at the end of the play in which he has no lines at all, but the subtle changes in his physicality and the softening of his face speak volumes. Yes, the play is about Katurian and his brother. But at that moment, when you see just how their story has affected this once raging cop, your eyes well up a little bit. I am so glad that McDonagh included this scene in his script, and that Leonard was there to do it justice.
Just like any production, there were a few things that could be improved upon. A lot of the blocking is down on the floor so some people have sight line issues, the light board operator is right behind the audience and whispered conversations could be heard, and then there is the trains passing the building and blowing their horns (which no one can do anything about anyway). But overall, I was extremely impressed (I gave one of those standing ovations that I'm so stingy with). I want to take just a moment to pat scenic designer Donovan Kidd on the back. You come in thinking, that's simple enough, but then the first scene change comes and that thought changes immediately to, WOW that's cool! I won't ruin it for you. GO SEE IT! There are only three more performances left, so please don't miss the opportunity to be a part of this experience. The building's chilly, so bring a jacket, and it's a long show with a later starting time, so make sure the babysitter can stay la!
te. Congratulations to Trevor Belt and his phenomenal cast. You have a show to be proud of. 5 out of 5 stars.
read the review at KC Stage