“The Pillowman” promised to shock me. That was the talk around town. I heard that this play crosses boundaries so dark, so repressed, that most cannot sit through to the end. Audiences storm the exits in horror. The theatre becomes a hollow, cement cage dominated by gruesome truths, but no one to listen.
“How far in could I last?” I wondered.
That was the promise, anyway. The experience of actually watching “The Pillowman” proved a very different story and sadly, a less interesting one.
We open on a police interrogation, somewhere in a totalitarian state. Officer Tupolski, played by the always-funny Bryan Harkins, offers bizarre questions to a young writer named Katurian (Grace Mulinix). Apparently his intense and violent short stories closely resemble a series of child murders.
For Katurian, these questions come as a cold wake-up call. He’s a writer, but not a very thoughtful one. His pen moves prolifically across hundreds of pages, but never once has he had to stop and think about the power of his craft—the harm of the written word.
To assist in facing this reality, Kristen Ellert designed a remarkable double-tiered set. The bottom housed the interrogation room, equipped with a long table that reflected all the harsh light in the room. Upstage, a second level gave way for the play-within-the-play.
Katurian’s horrific stories were presented to us in dumbshow. This series of nightmarish vignettes nearly put me into a trance and were truly the best parts of the experience.
Director Quincy Joyner, a relatively new faculty member, marks his theatrical debut at UT with Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman.” By choosing this boldly satirical work, Joyner stamps his entrance with a discussion on the ethics of narrative storytelling.
More specifically, we are asked by McDonagh’s play, when does art and rhetoric become harmful? Are we responsible for what happens as the result of our work?
An extremist might say that freedom of speech extends forever. McDonagh, on the other hand, begs us to consider how our speech may cause harm. I think of Adolf Hitler’s effective rhetoric, or films like “The Birth of a Nation” paving a space for a new era of the Ku Klux Klan.
These works were intoxicating and led nations to slaughtering their own people. But, we must also remember that these pieces of rhetoric knew what they were doing. They were intentionally manipulative and they—unfortunately—achieved the result they wanted.
As a contrast, the well-intentioned author in “The Pillowman” loses all agency over his words. At the beginning of the play Katurian doesn’t know how to answer the police. He simply hasn’t given his own work enough thought.
Ironically, I think the problem with Joyner’s production of “The Pillowman” is exactly that—not enough thought put into the interpretation.
I got the feeling that Joyner wanted to shock me, but because he never fully committed to a vision, a clear point he wanted to make, the play got in its own way.
This lack of commitment manifested in several ways, but perhaps most obviously through the performances. Rather than moving his characters throughout the stage to help engage the audience for the long, two-hour theatrical experience, Joyner often kept his actors seated in the same position.
Beyond the blocking issues, one character in particular really confused me. Katurian’s brother Michael (Becca Lustic) was presented as autistic. I know this, because during the post-play talkback, Lustic told the audience that she based her performance on one of her real, autistic family members.
One problem: In the play Michael is not autistic; he’s traumatized.
Confusing different types of mental illnesses as if they are all the same frankly doesn’t sit well with me. Especially when Michael murders children because of his illness. Are we to infer that autistic people are inherently violent? It’s a problematic, Shakespearean concept of “madness.” Outdated. Incorrect. Harmful.
For a story that preaches thinking about your work before releasing it to the world, Joyner and Lustic did not appear to follow through with this philosophy.
In the end, I find the message of the play very unclear. A muddled interpretation of an ambiguous story. Kind of a perfect storm for confusion.
Maybe, McDonagh’s point is simply to get us talking. Perhaps his play contradicts itself, because that is the point. The thesis is the question. Joyner’s job as an interpreter was to find his own answers and—well—tell the story.
Just like the characters within the play itself, Joyner needs to take responsibility for the work he presents to the world and think about what it means. Generating a conversation without definitive answers is great, of course, but my conversation left me in a murky fog.
Evan Sennett is a fourth-year student double majoring in film and English with a concentration in literature.