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The Pillowman

Aaron Hursh and Ryan Beil. Photo by Karen McNeeThe Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Stephen Drover
A Wild Geese Equity Co-op Production
Jericho Arts Centre
Feb 19 to Mar 6, 2011
Wed through Sun at 8 PM

Vancouver, BC:  I freely confess - uncoerced by any implement of torture - that I probably viewed  the Wild Geese Co-op production of The Pillowman through a different lens than most of their audiences will be using.

The Pillowman was the subject of my final term paper in a course on Modern British Drama and as an obsessively over-achieving mature student, I assiduously mined the text for every subtlety and nuance I could find. My  issues were around authorial voice, whether "scriptor" or reader gives meaning to text,  Death of the Author (concretized in McDonagh's script) ... and other such academic ideas.

A mere four months later I saw John Crowley's Broadway production of The Pillowman. Crowley directed the 2003 world premiere of The Pillowman at London's National Theatre, and also incidentally directed another incredibly powerful play,  A Steady Rain which I saw in New York in 2009.

Ashley O'Connell, Mike Wasko and Aaron Hursh.   Photo by Michael SiderThe change in my perspective of key elements in the play from the written text to seeing the play in performance in New York was immense. Think - the Brothers Grimm meet Franz Kafka. With the text I focused on the Grimms. Performance was pure Kafka.

Here 's the basic plot.

The lights go up  on a blindfolded man, sitting in an interrogation chamber of an unspecified totalitarian police state.  He is Katurian K. Katurian (played here by Aaron Hursh),who writes stories, and looks after his older brother Michal (Ryan Beil) who has been damaged by years of parental abuse.

Like the hapless Josef K.  of Kafka's The Trial who, "without having done anything wrong...was arrested one morning", Katurian has  no idea why he has been brought in for interrogation. Two policemen, Tupolski (Ashley O'Connell) and his side-kick Ariel (Mike Wasko), interrogate him about  the extreme violence in his stories and about three missing children, two  of whom have been found murdered. Katurian is proud of his stories but horrified to learn that the murdered children were killed as described in his tales of The Little Apple Men, and the Town on the River.

As they read the story of The Writer and The Writer's Brother, and The Little Jesus, the stories are acted out by Mother (Bonny Panych) and Father (Dave Campbell) and the Little Girl (Jeanna Haddow). Drover with set designer Naomi Sider and lighting designer Darren Boquist staged these vignettes strikingly - reminding me that creativity does not always need  big budgets and lavish sets to make a lasting impression.

 With twists and turns as unexpected as Katurian's stories, the plot unfolds leading to the death of the author. But what of his stories....

The scenes of Katurian interacting with his brother  were beautifully performed. Beil captured the innocence of a tortured soul who did not understand the reality of what he was doing.  Hursh succeeded in portraying the anguished conflict between  his love for his brother  and his horror of what transpired, all the while questioning his own culpability in the horrific events.

Although O'Connell and Wasko were appropriately menacing in the convoluted interrogation of Katurian, I did not get quite that feel of a Kafkaesque Eastern European torture chamber that I felt in the New York production - but my companion did. So that's where the different lens comes in, mine perhaps being distorted by  memories of the previous production - still indelibly engraved in my mind after more than 5 years.

This is a dark and complex play but  the team at Wild Geese Equity Co-op did credit to McDonagh's text. It is well worth seeing.   

The Pillowman runs till Mar 6th. Tickets are $14 / $18. For tickets phone 604-224-8077 or reserve online