Review: ‘The Pillowman’ at Forum Theatre

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Martin McDonagh, the erstwhile enfant terrible of millennial European drama who is now a staple of contemporary theatres across the globe, is the sort of playwright whose words need little massaging in order to provoke and delight audiences in even the most straightforward stagings.

James Konicek (Michal) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Katurian). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.
James Konicek (Michal) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Katurian). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

But Forum Theatre, which by now has definitively established itself as the most capable and consistent platform for high quality avante garde-ish work in DC, is rarely satisfied with merely choosing a good script. Indeed, for all the inspired performances and brilliant designs that characterize Forum’s stunning new production of McDonagh’s The Pillowman, the real star of the show is its director, Yury Urnov.

Urnov, who directed the acclaimed Marie Antoinette at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2014 and who has actually published Russian translations of McDonagh’s work, animates this production with a vision that is both sweeping and intimate, alienating and inclusive. Urnov’s clean and expansive aesthetic, combined with the manic performances he draws from his actors, are reminiscent of Ivo van Hove, another Continental director whose Juliette Binoche-led Antigone electrified Washingtonians during its oh so brief stint at The Kennedy Center last October.

Urnov’s production is so successful because he completely nails the unholy McDonagh trifecta of violence/laughter/social commentary. The Pillowman careens back and forth between shocking tragedy and an almost giddy physical comedy. It swoops in and out of violence so black it makes it difficult to laugh… until something so funny happens that you can’t help it. This is the endless motion that makes The Pillowman so compelling – and certifies this production as indispensable viewing for fans of contemporary drama.

Of course, it isn’t solely to Urnov’s credit that Forum’s The Pillowman is so successful. It can also be chalked up to an incredible cast.

Forum alumnus Maboud Ebrahimzadeh stars as Katurian K. Katurian (“my parents were funny people,” he deadpans in the first scene), a writer who lives in a vaguely defined totalitarian dystopia. Katurian’s gruesome short stories are being acted out in the real world, possibly by his mentally-challenged brother, Michal (James Konicek). This leads to some Stasi style interrogation by Detectives Ariel (Bradley Foster Smith) and Tupolski (Jim Jorgensen).

The former, played by Smith, is a tough-talking cop with a fondness for electrodes. Smith’s Detective Ariel is wiry and neurotic, glowering through 1970s style aviator eyeglasses and inhaling his nicotine vaporizer (because it’s 2016, folks).

By contrast, Jorgensen is a calmer, almost languid Tupolski, whose voice may even drift into lilting territory. But make no mistake: Tupolski is every bit as ruthless as his partner, and Jorgenson is nothing short of captivating as he reveals glimpses of the true sadist lurking underneath his polished exterior.

Ebrahimzadeh is a compelling Katurian, crafting a character who is disarmingly down to earth while flashing deep seated neuroses leading back to his parents’ horrific abuses.

If Ebrahimzadeh’s Katurian is sane on the outside but crazy within, his brother, Michal, played with breathtaking dexterity by James Konicek, is quite forthright about his insanity, yet somehow manages to be the most human character in the entire play. This is mostly due to Konicek’s captivating performance. He dives into the mind, body, and spirit of Michal head-on and without fear, and it shows.

Now, the first thing you will notice when your Forum Pillowman experience begins is the faux-propaganda posters that line the lobby of the Silver Spring Black Box. Then, you may see a striking woman in full Gestapo dominatrix drag (Emma Lou Hébert, who plays her multiple roles with ease and vitality) stridently giving instructions to anyone who’s around. Sealing the Orwellian deal, when you walk into the space itself, you will see that each row of the sprawling three-quarters house is separated by long, thin conference tables. Reminiscent of a government hearing or a Victorian medical theater, the seating confers a sense that us the audience are complicit in the state-sanctioned abuse we are about to witness.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Katurian), Bradley Foster Smith (Ariel), and Jim Jorgensen (Tupolski). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Katurian), Bradley Foster Smith (Ariel), and Jim Jorgensen (Tupolski). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

In the center of the space is a giant cube where Katurian begins the play, bound and blindfolded, at your standard metal interrogation table. But the interesting thing is that the space, while marked with intimidating metal bars, is completely empty; there is no barrier. Katurian and the two detectives cross in and out of the cube by simply stepping over the ledge that separates the “inside” from the “outside”.

This strange, evocative and completely non-naturalistic setup (which is courtesy, by the way, of Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway) creates a sense that the whole thing is a circus, a kangaroo court meant more as entertainment for the masses than as a legitimate investigative proceeding. At various points throughout the show, the actors even break the fourth wall, transforming the audience into silent co-conspirators.

Hathaway should also be commended for the stunningly macabre mural that appears at one point in the show. The piece is a powerful work of visual art in and of itself that transforms the atmosphere of the show during a critical moment.

The stage picture is completed with a complex and dramatic lighting design by Jason Arnold and a strong costume design by Robert Croghan. The sound design, by Justin Schmitz, is an impressively active part of the show that adds sonic texture to an already imposing space.

Buried underneath all the bloody puzzle pieces that make up this play are surprising nuggets of hope: random kindnesses and the like. McDonagh never lets things get too affectionate – this is a play that gets very dark, after all. But it is a reminder that we don’t have to settle for either comedy or tragedy, social commentary or slapstick farce. We can have our cake and eat it too. And in Forum’s production, this bloody treat has never tasted better.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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The Pillowman plays through April 2, 2016, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

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