Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Pillowman at TLT

The Brothers Grimm
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Andrew Fry, Jacob Tice, Christian Carvajal.   Photos by Dennis K Photography

The Pillowman, a violent, darkly malevolent, yet comedy infused drama by Martin Mcdonagh (The Cripple of Inishmaan, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre. The play marks the TLT directorial debut of Blake York, the man I regard as the region’s best set designer. If this is any example, he’s equally skilled as a director.  

While I always try to give my readers enough of an overview to help them decide if a particular offering is or is not their cup of tea, this one will be hard to box up without giving away things that should remain the audience’s discoveries. Thus, if this sounds flighty or insufficient, I apologize, but you deserve to take this journey of discovery without too many spoiler alerts.

Jacob Tice as Katurian 
The action takes place in a uniformly gray and imposing brick interrogation room where two contrastingly different totalitarian state “bulls” put the screws, both verbally and physically, to a prolific writer of fiction ridiculously named Katurian Katurian. As part of their tactics, the benighted writer must endure the screams of his mentally challenged brother Michael, whom Katurian spent much of his life protecting, going through a similar ordeal in the next room.

L to R: Jacob Tice, Sean Neely as Michael 

As his stories and the interrogators’ questions unfold, it is clear that a favorite topic of his is the torture and killing of children, often by their own natural or foster parents. But as writing is not yet a crime in this dystopian world, he’s puzzled as to why he’s there until he’s told that someone has been acting out his gruesome stories in real life. When he’s put in his brother’s cell, he discovers his slow-witted sibling is the perpetrator of this horrid reality.

Or is he?

Katurian himself confesses to six murders, including both of his parents, but soon after it’s made clear that at least some of these killings did not actually happen. Yes, there are definitely absurdist influences afoot, which my reviewing partner likened to Waiting For Godot. By the end, we’re really not sure of anything exept that one or another individual said this or that happened. Reality and truth remain as elusive as they are in real life.

Along with his finely crafted directing, York pulled together an absolutely superb cast for what is essentially a four-man play. Katurian is none other than Jacob Tice, a local actor who invariably excels at every single role he takes, and this challenging part is no exception. Playing off him in a long, terse, emotionally charged scene as his mentally stunted brother is Sean Neely, who did an outstanding and believable job of crafting a complex character who borders on insightful clarity while being saddled with physical tics and a confused moral compass.

L to R: Jacob Tice, Christian Carvajal as bad cop Ariel

The two interrogators, good cop Tupolski (Andrew Fry) and bad cop Ariel (Christian Carvajal) hold up their end just as admirably, deftly manipulating the tension in the room while sprinkling it with the occasional disarmingly comic comment. While the arc of the play is grimly serious, the random injection of noir comedy affords the put-upon audience both relief and texture.

At times, when Katurian tells one of the more than 400 stories he wrote, the walls of the cell slide away to let us see his words unfold. This action, played out by Ellen Peters, Tim Takechi, Alexandria Bray, and Nathaniel Walker, takes place on the other side of a backlit scrim, so we see it as a crisply defined shadow show. Once the story ends, we are back in the gray cell.

As we’ve come to expect at TLT, the technical side is most adroitly handled by “the usual suspects,” the theatre’s laudable stable of resident artists, though in this case, the story itself is so gripping that it’s easy to overlook their contributions. Director Blake York also designed the set, Michele Graves handled the costumes, Niclas Olson the lighting, Dylan Twiner the sound design, and Jeffrey Weaver the props, hair, and makeup. Ana Bury is the resident scenic artist, and the ever-capable Nena Curley is the stage manager.

Admittedly, this is not a night of jollity, but wrapped in its grim cloak there’s a rollercoaster ride of ethical challenges and intense emotions that effectively drag the audience through a visceral magic carpet ride. If the goal of a play is to make you feel and think deeply, this one gets an A plus, and it is hard to imagine a more flawless cast and crew to execute it.

How does it all shake out? Perhaps the best way to wrap it up is to paraphrase one of the lines of the play. “In real life there are no happy endings.”

Still, if your goal is seeing truly great theatre, here’s your chance. Gird your emotions, but go see it.

The Pillowman
April 20 to May 6, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

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