‘The Pillowman’s’ comedy is pitch black

Feb. 25, 2011, 12:45 a.m.

'The Pillowman's' comedy is pitch black
Courtesy of Jacob Boehm

“The Pillowman” is probably the funniest show I’ve ever seen about child murder.

That’s not to say that the show is a comedy — though it was consistently clever and frequently hilarious, this production is primarily a supremely dark drama, a macabre exploration of the human psyche in which author Martin McDonagh takes a hard look at life and death and all the stuff that happens in between. It’s a play full of death and torture and hysteria, which makes it extremely hard to pull off, but in my opinion, the Stanford cast and crew fully succeeded.

“The Pillowman” is about an interrogation; a writer and his mentally disabled brother are accused of the murder of several children who were killed in very specific, graphic ways — ways that were carefully spelled out in a few of the protagonist’s stories. It opens with a fairly standard good-cop/bad-cop routine and then proceeds to mockingly acknowledge the cliché and cast off any semblance of comfortable familiarity, plunging the viewer into unforeseen depths of depravity.

The plot itself is fascinating, but what sets this play apart is the relationships between characters, whose interactions constantly defy expectation. The two cops seem to share the rapport of an old married couple, all comfortable familiarity and aggravation and nagging, juxtaposed with the context of the excessively brutal torture that they are visiting upon their prisoner. It is here that the show finds much of its humor: between discussing several graphic murders, the cops enter a harmless sort of domestic dispute. Still more intriguing is the growing relationship between the writer-protagonist Katurian and his interrogators, which vacillated between oddly comfortable banter and raw, violent cruelty. These very believable and consistently clever interactions gave the show a freshness and provided for a startling contrast that prevented the audience from growing desensitized to the darkness of the piece.

The most remarkable scenes for me, though, were the scenes in which Katurian’s short stories are recited and performed for the audience. The entire mood would change; the lights would be warm, and Katurian would glow from within as he spoke — even as, behind him, children were tortured and buried alive. The result was alluringly eerie and entirely effective.

Two actors stood out for me, though the entire cast surpassed all expectations. Nathaniel Nelson ‘11’s portrayal of Michal was wholly compelling and surprisingly believable, forcing us to love the character despite being given more than enough reasons not to. Perhaps even more impressive was Harley Adams ’11 (playing Tupolski), whose erratic mood swings could control the room; the character’s rapid switches between convincingly friendly laughter and white-hot rage were incredibly unsettling.

“The Pillowman” is, in short, the darkest dark comedy that you’ll ever come across. It weaves the perfect balance of morbidity and humor, using very real characters and the vehicle of storytelling to explore the dark recesses of the human psyche. If you’re at all intrigued by human nature or fascinated by death, or at least have a decent sense of humor, I urge you to head over to Prosser Theater at 8 p.m. to experience the show for yourself.

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