By John Lyle Belden
I’ll admit some bias up front: Wendy and I are good friends with Casey Ross, and longtime supporters of her plays and work as founder of Catalyst Repertory. Wendy is also a big fan of Martin McDonagh’s very dark comedy, “The Pillowman.”
Still, I hope you believe us when we say that Catalyst’s Ross-directed production of “Pillowman” at the IndyFringe Theatre is perfectly cast and brilliantly executed (pardon the apt turn of phrase).
For those unfamiliar with the play, the setup misleads you. In a fictional dictatorship, the State Police arrest and detain a writer of stories for children. At first, it appears that this is a political persecution, a free expression issue. But though the officers do routinely violate citizens’ civil rights, it turns out they have a good reason for interrogating Katurian Katurian (Taylor Cox) and his mentally handicapped brother Michal (Dane Rogers) – brutal child murders that resemble the plots of Katurian’s stories.
Dave Pelsue is lead detective Tupolski, with Matthew Walls as Detective Ariel, who plays “bad cop” (complete with custom-built torture device). Given the heinous nature of the crimes, they feel quite justified in their tactics. Katurian, well aware of this, tries in vain to assert his innocence. When he finally spends time with Michal, he finds the situation even more bleak than he had feared.
During the course of the narrative, we also see recitations of the macabre tales, acted by Rachel Snyder and David Rosenfield as the cruel Mother and Father, Eleanor Turner as the young Boy, and Lane Snyder as the little Girl. McDonagh’s stories within the story have the bizarre air of popular fiction by writers like Roald Dahl, but the playwright has said his inspiration goes further back, to the dark, original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the traditional stories of his Irish childhood. Such fables were meant to teach children lessons, but Katurian seems to enjoy the maimings and torture of his writings a bit much – perhaps owing to his own dysfunctional childhood, revealed in his lone “autobiographical” story, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother.”
Ross also incorporates shadow puppetry in the telling of his stories, and a lifesize plush version of the title character. The Pillowman is Katurian’s attempt to make sense of the senseless things that happen to children, including himself and Michal, while incorporating a fatalistic outlook.
Performances are exceptional. Pelsue has the tough-SOB archetype down, and gives us a perfect calm-but-simmering veteran cop. Walls plays a man who has a human layer under the professional inquisitor, but makes you earn getting a glimpse of it. Cox doesn’t look like the kind of person who can survive such an interrogation, but he finds some fight within him.
As for Rogers’s Michal, he keeps it “simple” without being an insensitive caricature. Comparisons with Lennie of “Of Mice and Men” are unavoidable – and purely by coincidence, there is a production of Steinbeck’s story now on stage in Westfield. But while the classic big man felt absolutely no malice, Michal’s damaged past allows for dark vengeance, and pain is just part of a child’s story.
“There are no heroes,” Ross told me. All four men enter the story broken, and not all will leave alive. As for the stories, 400 manuscripts sitting in document boxes, it is their fate that is the main question. Will they survive? Should they?
Performances continue Feb. 18-20 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis, and streaming Feb. 25-27 on Broadway on Demand. For info and tickets, visit catalystrepertory.org or indyfringe.org.