When I enter the intimate space of the Propeller Gallery, it is filled with a couple of rows of chairs facing a minimalist playing space (set designed by Tracy Lam, who also designed costumes and props). A table, a file cabinet, a couple of chairs. Three metal frame-encased light bulbs hang from the ceiling. Stage right, there is a projection screen, currently blank. The works of six local artists,* created specifically for the production, hang on the white upstage wall. The images are beautiful, freakish, violent and nightmarish – each bordered and connected to some of the others with black tape. Like a homicide detective’s whiteboard. Or a bizarre family tree. Relationships. Causality. Connections.
This is opening night of Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by Ryan Quinn. As with McDonagh’s other works (The Lonesome West and the film In Bruges), this play is not for the faint-hearted. And in this space, the action is even more up close and personal, drawing the audience in even as it repels.
Katurian (Chris George) is a writer of strange, wondrous and often grotesque stories – many involving young children in macabre fairy tales that would make the Grimm boys blanch. He is also in police custody in a totalitarian dictatorship – blindfolded when we first see him – with no idea why he’s there. Detectives Tupolski (Davydd Cook) and Ariel (Spencer Robson, also one of the company’s ADs and producer for this show) interrogate Katurian, who soon learns that his intellectually challenged older brother Michal (David DiFrancesco) is also in custody. Two children have been found murdered and a third (Maria – Maya Kawale) is missing, presumed dead. If the brothers are found guilty, the police have the power to go straight to execution. No trial. No jail time.
Twists and turns abound in this deeply disturbing, moving and brutally funny play. Quinn and his cast have done a marvelous job of mining these characters, presenting the multiple facets of each, ever aware of how high the stakes. No one is as he seems at first – and any notion of good cop/bad cop, hero/villain, innocent/guilty are turned upside down as the action progresses. As the protagonist Katurian, George is especially remarkable, displaying an extraordinary range of vulnerability, strength and emotion in a single performance. Each character holds strong convictions – and when they clash, it is both terrible and thought-provoking to behold. Intimidation, torture, wordplay and storytelling share the stage in this gripping and moving drama. The stage right screen I mentioned earlier is put to good use, with projected illustrations (by Lauren Dobbie) of Katurian’s stories appearing as he narrates them — like the stories, both lyrical and terrible. And Katurian’s fight to save his art rivals that of his fight to save himself or his brother.
*Shouts, too, to the contributing artists, whose work is available for sale (speak with the box office folks): Mike Ellis, Tiffany Huta, Jennifer Ilett, Emily Kouri, Suharu Ogawa and Tyler Tilley.
The Pillowman runs just till March 3 at the Propeller Gallery – and seating is limited – so I’d strongly suggest booking in advance at TicketBreak. Go see this.