Last weekend, the Anne Shirley Theatre Company (ASTC) had its latest foray into straight theatre. The Pillowman is the story of a short story writer incarcerated when his tales start being acted out. Set in a totalitarian dystopia, Katurian Katurian writes mostly about children being horribly physically abused, from maiming, to torture, to murder.
The inspiration for his dark stories comes from his own past as his parents took his older brother Michal and locked him in a room and tortured him for seven years, which Katurian heard through the wall of his bedroom. When he finds Michal, mentally disabled from either before or because of his parents’ torture, Katurian smothers his parents with a pillow.
The supposedly good-cop Detective Tupolski and supposedly bad-cop Ariel question Katurian about the murders of two children and the disappearance of another, about which he knows nothing. Ariel then forces Michal to admit to the murders, but when Katurian is thrown into a cell with his brother, he discovers that Michal actually committed them. As Katurian told his brother the stories he wrote, Michal decided he wanted to see if they were as extravagant as they seemed.
Katurian then smothers his brother and claims the murders of the three children as his own as well as admitting to the murders of his parents and brother under the condition that his stories will not be burned. But the last little girl is found still alive and as Tupolski and Ariel question him further, they realize he is not at fault for the child murders. He is of course still executed for the murders of his family.
In director and president of ASTC Dane Shumak’s note in the program, he stated that “The Pillowman is an immensely difficult, dark and atmospheric black comedy that starkly examines what is difficult about art, writing, and drama and forces the audience to confront it head on.”
The main philosophical issues presented in the play include the responsibility of storytellers, whether stories need a driving meaning, and the misinterpretation of stories. Unfortunately, however, these ideas were wrapped together with two dimensional characters, vague backstories, and a totalitarian setting that was never truly established. A few vague references to a “Commandant” do not a dystopia make.
Michal’s character, which could have had immense emotional depth, was handicapped by making him into the mentally disabled murderer, a cliché which could be explored through the script, but ultimately wasn’t. Rather, he was set up as a comic foil as opposed to a real human being. The same goes for Tupolski and Ariel, who are given only minor backstories instead of real character development.
So how did the cast fair when saddled with a script of questionable quality?
Benjamin Harrison as Katurian, the main character who is explicitly a storyteller, committed the worst sin of theatre: he was boring. During his story monologues, he spoke too fast and with few vocal dynamics. His acting also felt like minor vignettes – he did not build up a character, but simply strung together moments of nervousness, anger, and fear.
Karsten Skeries as Tupolski had good comedic timing and a strong presence, but did not feel like a dynamic character. Kinshuk Matta as Ariel was two-note, veering between a lack lustre angry and moments of real poignancy.
Peter Del Villano as Michal showed himself as a strong physical and comedic actor but did not delve into the emotional core of his character, though again he was hampered by a script that did not give much to this side of Michal.
Bradley Fess as the Father and Callie Helgason as the Mother were strong for the small parts they got, particularly Fess’s physical energy when Katurian smothers the Father. I would have liked to see their characters do more in the scenes they were given.
Ultimately The Pillowman suffered from two-dimensional characters, but Shumak could have done more with movement and using the stage.
In the end, The Pillowman, instead of eliciting fear and laughter, simply put me to sleep.