Review: ‘The Pillowman’ at Vagabond Players

Just about at the midway point of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, Katurian K. Katurian – the writer of macabre short stories who is the focus of the play – mutters the phrase:  “There are no happy endings.” By this point in the evening, audience members have already acclimated to that nihilistic point of view, and yet such a simple declaration sent shivers through those viewers assembled for opening night of The Pillowman at Vagabond Players in Fell’s Point, Maryland.

The cast of The Pillowman (L-R): David Shoemaker, Stephen Deininger, Michael Kranick, and Paul Valleau. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
The cast of The Pillowman (L-R): David Shoemaker, Stephen Deininger, Michael Kranick, and Paul Valleau. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

When presenting a four-person play, one weak link can alter the overall enjoyment of the piece, but The Pillowman director, Eric C. Stein, has a cast of performers well up to the task at hand. Joel Selzer’s set design – basically a dank and dreary interrogation room with an attached prison cell (which he also effectively lights) – transports the audience to this police station under the control of an unnamed totalitarian government.

Michael Kranick as Katurian conveys both the confusion and fear necessary for the opening scenes of the play. As The Pillowman begins, Katurian has been brought in for intense interrogation; the stories he has written about children in peril (and often killed) have recently been reenacted in reality – and the police believe he knows who is committing the crimes.

Tupolski and Ariel, portrayed respectively by Stephen M. Deininger and David Shoemaker, effectively pull off the good cop/bad cop routine. Shoemaker’s Ariel seems particularly volatile – a perfect place to start his character’s complex arc. As Tupolski, Deininger exudes enough confidence to make it clear he is the one in charge, but the audience can sense him losing his composure, and his control, as the evening progresses.

Paul Valleau as Michal and Michael Kranick as Katurian. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
Paul Valleau as Michal and Michael Kranick as Katurian. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

This brings us to the fourth member of this quartet – Paul Valleau as Katurian’s brother Michal. When the police interrogators allow Katurian to visit Michal in his prison cell, Katurian suddenly realizes that they believe his brother has committed these crimes. Valleau’s work as the mentally-diminished and child-like Michal is subtle and brilliant. Although his stage-time is the briefest of the four, Valleau holds the audience in the palm of his hands for every moment he is given. The interaction between these two brothers is heartbreaking as viewers know this cannot end well. It is in this section of the story that audiences hear the story of “The Pillowman” – a tale that is both shocking and compassionate in equal measures.

Katurian’s stories, which form the backbone of the government’s case against these brothers, as well as the structural constant throughout The Pillowman script, need to be highlighted here. Every time a character slips into storytelling mode, the audience is enraptured. In particular, the two stories that are accompanied by filmic projections will linger in viewer’s minds for a long time to come. The projection design by Stuart Kazanow and Eric C. Stein is extremely accomplished, award-worthy work. They manage to bring these stories to life with images that exist in a beautiful ether somewhere between live-action and watercolor animation. These projections are worth the ticket price alone.

Director Eric C. Stein and his assistant, Ryan Gunning lead their actors along the thin line between the seriousness of the play and the lighter moments that give the audience a breather from this dark world-view. In the end, The Pillowman wraps itself up in a strangely optimistic way leaving the audience with much to contemplate at its conclusion.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

The Pillowman plays through March 18, 2018, at Vagabond Players  – 806 S. Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21231. For tickets, call 410-563-9135, or purchase them online.