The Pillowman, Forum Theatre

Once upon a time, there was a writer named Katurian K. Katurian.  He lived in an unspecified, totalitarian state with a police force that perhaps relied a little too much on torture and execution during its investigations than an ideal police force might. His stories were dark, tortured little fables that didn't so much seek to teach a lesson as to unsettle. He hoped his stories would impress readers with his cleverness and his skill, and above all, he hoped that his stories would outlast him.

In Forum Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, we can't help but be drawn into Katurian's world. Under Yury Urnov's direction and Paige Hathaway's set design, the Silver Spring Black Box has become one central boxed-in police interrogation room, surrounded by three walls of potential interrogators.  The audience itself is seated behind tables, watching as Jim Jorgensen's Tupolski and Bradley Foster Smith's Ariel question, attack, intimidate, and cajole Maboud Ebrahimzadeh's Katurian into revealing his truest stories. In Urnov's production, we are (for the most part) urged away from the occasional vague Eastern European noun in McDonagh's script into seeing this world as our own. Robert Croghan's costume designs for the primary actors place them into recognizable tropes; in particular, Smith seems like he stepped out of an 80s cop drama and Ebrahimzadeh could have walked right off the street and into the cell. It's also undeniable that Urnov has presented us with a scene of a man of color being brutalized by two white members of the police force; this Pillowman doesn't feel the need to lean into this casting to excess, trusting the audience to be aware of the visual and its implications without losing the subtlety of McDonagh's play.

As I've told many friends, The Pillowman is probably my favorite play written in the last 15 years, and it's one of my great Theatrical Regrets that I had the opportunity to see the original production at the National Theatre in London in 2003 (and in fact, was living across the street from the theatre and so could have gone at any time) and just... didn't go.  I saw the wonderful staging at Studio Theatre in 2007 that starred Tom Story, which fully dramatized Katurian's stories for the audience. Urnov's production, by contrast, is scaled down, with each story presented in a different way. At times, it feels like the production tries a little too hard to think of something new for each dark fairy tale, but there is a charm in wondering just what you'll get next.  The ensemble (rounded out by a wonderful James Konicek as Katurian's brother Michal and Emma Lou Hebert in several roles) is truly excellent, rising to the challenge of McDonagh's dialogue and the plot's dark twists and turns.  Ebrahimzadeh in particular is absolutely mesmerizing, from an affable charm in the first act to a haunting desperation as his situation takes an abrupt turn in Act II. Pillowman is a story about stories and the power they hold, and it's a story in excellent hands at Forum Theatre.


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