“I don’t really have a worldview. Well, actually, my worldview is that the world is a pile of shit.”
That’s definitely the idea you get as you walk into the Upspace for The Pillowman, which opens tonight at 8 p.m. and runs through Monday. With a dark, minimalist set and eerie dolls hanging on the wall, averting their gaze from the audience, this dystopian world director Andrew Ganem ’16 has created is unsettling before the actors even take the stage.
Yet, it is the cast, as they vacillate abruptly between riotous dark comedy and engrossing drama, that truly brings the text of Martin McDonagh’s terrifyingly brilliant three-act play from 2003 about a writer, Katurian Katurian (Alex Ostroff ’14), accused of carrying out the murders of three children exactly like they take place in his short stories, to life.
First, there’s Tupolski and Ariel, played by Sam Rubinek ’17 and Keston McMillan ’17, the abusive and deliciously sadistic policemen. As they nonsensically question Katurian about murders he did not commit, McDonagh’s biting satire is in its purest form, thanks to Rubinek and McMillan’s mastery of the comic tone and timing. Rubinek, with a drawl reminiscent of a 1950s Chicago mobster, is the good cop (although in this hopeless totalitarian dictatorship, there is no such thing) . McMillan is certainly the bad cop, his speech menacingly quiet and his body language hinting at the imminent doom each of these characters is hurtling towards. The first act belongs to this freshman duo.
Katurian remains calm much of the first act and his ultimate fall is serviced by Ostroff’s initial unfazed confidence. As the three men banter, it is clear they are in three different universes. But as Katurian slowly realizes he might not make it out of the interrogation room unharmed, the tone quickly turns sour. Ganem is skilled at building tension within each scene, as the three strong personalities crash in crisis.
The storytelling is further enhanced by the use of puppets, a bold directorial choice by Ganem and operated by Audie Feirberg ’15, Peter Bowden ’16, Hannah Margolin ’16, Marli Scharlin ’16, Devon Nir ’17, Ellen Taylor ’17 and Justinn Harris ’15. While they sometimes pull focus from the scene, when the puppets work they heighten the drama and help solidify the fantastical yet harshly human aura of the show, as Katurian’s gruesome stories are brought to life. The puppeteering during the title story, “The Pillowman”, is truly spectacular.
Ostroff’s talent is most amplified in the second act, when the character of Michel (a tricky part navigated skillfully by Evan Silver ’16), his mentally disabled brother, is introduced. As the humor is slowly sapped from the play, the vibrant heart of Katurian’s character is revealed. The moments of tenderness between the brothers gives a much needed human element to this hyperreal world. Ostroff and Silver’s rapport is equal parts perversely funny and heart-wrenching, as the play becomes a story of a family imploding.
The third act, although it runs a little long, has Katurian grappling with every audience member’s greatest fears: mortality and legacy. In a world inhospitable to individuality, Katurian fearlessly attempts to leave something of himself behind.