Two days before seeing the closing performance of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman by the newish 4615 Theater Company, I received an email from director and 4615 Artistic Director Jordan Friend: “About 75 percent of the seats are chairs set up in a normal proscenium fashion, but in the front we have a collection of large cushions on the floor for people to sit on, which get very close to some of the action. I am happy to reserve you space in either section.” Not the strangest email I’ve received from a DC director, but it certainly piqued my attention. Despite my bad back and fidgety nature (again, my apologies to the patrons sitting behind me) I felt I didn’t have a choice – of course I would take the cushion. And yes, sitting on a pillow during a production of The Pillowman may seem a little on-the-nose, especially for a play that defies such easy symbolism. But I must say that sitting cris-cross applesauce on a cushion and looking up wide-eyed, enthralled in the story, I was transported back to elementary school reading time. On the one hand this is fucked up, because The Pillowman revolves around a gruesome series of torture and murder that mostly involves children. On the other hand, given the simple language of its faux-fairytales and its insistence on the importance of storytelling, it seemed very apt that I, as audience member, would be positioned almost as a child, forced to absorb, rapt, the narrative that was spun before me.
The Pillowman defies easy interpretation. The story itself is easy enough to understand: A mentally challenged man is accused of a series of grisly child murders that closely resemble the equally grim short stories of his writer brother, and over the course of their interrogation in an imagined totalitarian police state we learn about the brothers’ own nauseating childhood which involved – you guessed it – child torture. And yet – and I swear I’m not a sadist – the show is tremendously, inexplicably, at times gut wrenching hilarious. Aficionados of Martin McDonagh’s work will understand how even within this most morbid of situations laughter can abound. Even so, I found myself feeling more than a little guilty for guffawing during the same scene that it is revealed a little girl had razors stuffed down her throat.
The fact is that The Pillowman can be described as being “about” many things: the power of storytelling; the analogy of violence amongst individuals and the violence of an authoritarian state; the problematic role of the writer as a witness to events, ever passive; the impotence of a society which cannot protect its own children from terror. But ultimately, The Pillowman is a comedy, and at times its most acidic commentary is directed towards “fashionably dark” writers like McDonagh himself. How dark is too dark? And why, since the Ancient Greeks, do we crave to see horrible things depicted on stage?
I didn’t walk out of the theatre knowing the answers to any of these questions, but the questions themselves insistently stuck in my brain, where they remain now, and where I suspect they will stay for quite a while. This is a challenging text, a text dense in imagery and characterization that has been recognized for its brilliance by a number of prestigious awards. So it is with admitted trepidation that I walked into the classroom space of Woolly Mammoth (which looks exactly like it sounds) and gracelessly flopped down on my assigned cushion. 4615 Theater Company is a self-described “young” theatre company, both in terms of its own existence (since 2013) and the median age of the artists involved (around 20 years old). Could such a young and inexperienced theatre company pull off one of the most difficult works of the 21st century? The answer is unequivocal: Yes. Yes, they pulled it off, and not only pulled it off, but produced one of the funniest, most horrifying, most moving and most enjoyable nights at the theatre that I have had in a long, long time.
4615’s production was living proof that design need not be expensive or especially elaborate to be effective. Scenic and Props Designers Nathaniel Sharer, Halle Beshouri, and Shelby Mahaffie arranged a set that was simple but smart in its choice of objects: A metal cart that served as a coffin and an interrogation table, among other things, and which produced a deliciously shocking sound when struck; a filing cabinet, such a potent symbol of oppressive bureaucracy; three chairs; and a white background screen used to project shadows from behind. I know from experience the difficulty of backlit shadow projection, and they really did a good job of making the images crisp and well-timed. Showing a crucifixion in shadow form was particularly beautiful, albeit grotesque.
The lights (designed by Jordan Friend) too were impressive, not least because there is no light plot in the Woolly classroom. But the wonders of LED lighting are such that a whole spectrum of colors, including blacklight, were utilized, creating a surprisingly robust visual palate. Likewise, the soundscape (by Sound Designer and Composer Erik Frederikson) added texture and complexity to the production, especially snatches of Russian-ish speech and music that evoked a heavy-handed state. Costumes by Paul Alan Hogan were simple but effective, particularly the Little Girl dress utilized in “The Little Jesus.”
Although the design of the show was smart and even elegant given the tiny budget, it was ultimately the quality of the performances that made The Pillowman such a joy (and a horror) to behold. First and foremost, Billy Saunders Jr. as Katurian Katurian (yes, it is both his first and last names, because his “parents were funny”) is a force of nature on stage. As the audience walks in to find their seat and/or cushion, Saunders sits, quivering, at the interrogation table, a blindfold covering his face in the quintessential symbol of imprisonment. The character that unfolds is extraordinary in range, capable of both cynicism and naiveté, self-righteousness and self-preservation, egotism and altruism. Katurian is a fucked up writer born of fucked up parents trying to navigate a fucked up society. All of which is pretty dark, which may explain his predilection for short stories that are basically, in the words of one of his interrogators, “101 ways to skewer a five year old”. Nevertheless, there is a joy to Katurian Katurian, or at least a joy to watching him try to wriggle out of this bloody situation. Saunders proves himself capable of navigating all the twists and turns that his character takes, but above all, he is steadfast in his focus on the one thing Katurian cares about – his stories. His love of the stories he writes, and of his identity as a writer, even to the point of sacrifice, is apparent at all times. I expect and hope to see Mr. Saunders on many more DC stages in the years to come.
Saunders may have gotten the biggest applause due to the sheer difficulty of his role, but the rest of the small but mighty cast certainly held their own. The two detectives, Ariel (Mark Ashin) and Tupolski (Brendan McMahon) were great fun to watch. Their rapport with each other and with Katurian could come straight out of a farce were it not such gruesome material. Both of these characters could potentially be played as tired Law & Order stereotypes with little distinction between the two of them. It is to Director Jordan Friend’s credit, as well as Ashin’s and McMahon’s, that this was not the case.
Likewise, Wolf Fleetwood-Ross as Katurian’s mentally challenged brother, Michal, presented a character complex enough that it was entirely believable that he could have slaughtered children, but at the same time was oddly loveable. The cast was rounded out by Perry Levitch as the aforementioned Little Girl, and Elizabeth Ung as a variety of terrible mothers. The ensemble worked well together. There was an unmistakable warmth that belied the violence on stage.
I love seeing shows that confirm my deepest-held belief about theatre, which is that intentional choices are what makes a show successful or not. It was clear to me that all the thousands of choices that were made during the course of the production, from music to staging to costume, were strategic. As an audience member, there is a joy to watching something that is truly designed in the sense that it is intentionally orchestrated so that all the moving parts point towards a single end. So despite the razors and crosses and children, I walked out of the theatre with a smile on my face. But as I walked home, and the shadows got longer, I looked hard at the places where someone might hide, shivered in spite of the heat, and thanked God it was only a play.
The Pillowman at 4615 Theater Company performing at the Classroom at Woolly Mammoth – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC, played its final performance on August 15, 2015. For more information about 4615 Theater Company, check out their website.