hoto Credit: Randall King and Julian López-Morillas in Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman at San Jose Stage Company.
In Review

The Pillowman

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars - 'Smashing'
San Jose Stage Company
Directed by Rick Singleton
Starring Randall King, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Aaron Wilton, Justin Karr, Diahanna Davidson, Leah Kolchinsky, James McGregor and Rich Miller
Review by Clinton Stark
Randall King and Julian López-Morillas in Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman at San Jose Stage Company. Photo by Dave Lepori.
Randall King and Julian López-Morillas in Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman at San Jose Stage Company. Photo by Dave Lepori.

Stephen King, your play is ready. Martin McDonagh, winner of an Olivier Award for best new play, brilliantly mixes black comedy, horror and crime drama into an innovative, and often disturbing, script.

Throughout the opening night I kept thinking to myself that it would make a good little horror flick in the vein of indie films May and Frailty—which, turns out, is in keeping with the playwright’s love first for film, “I’m coming to theater with a disrespect for it.”

Set in a totalitarian state, two brothers are arrested for suspicion of murdering three children. The younger brother, Katurian (Aaron Wilton), is a writer, who’s short stories are haunting and horrific (that read like “101 ways to skewer a 5-year-old”), usually resulting in the death of one or more children. Given that the circumstances of the murders are virtually identical to his stories, he faces intense interrogation from two detectives at the local police station.

Tupolski (Julian Lopez-Morillas) is a good cop with a predilection for the asinine (“to keep them off balance”) and a predisposition for also writing bizarre short stories.

His partner, the rough and tumble, chain smoking, mumbling bad cop Ariel (Randall King, artistic director at San Jose Stage Company), prefers fisticuffs, a consequence we learn, due to an unfortunate childhood.

Katurian pleads his case without the aid of attorneys—the first duty of a storyteller is to tell good stories he says. Flashbacks ensue. In one scene, heads fly with William Castle-like flare. Yes, decapitation, child murder, executions, severed toes, and police brutality can make for morbidly fun times.

Michael (Justin Karr), Katurian’s “slow to get things” brother, proves to be a central figure in how the story unfolds. A warped prisoner’s dilemma of sorts plays out. But who is just storytelling? Is anyone telling the truth?

The Pillowman himself is a tortured, and perhaps, fictional soul who’s mission is to save children from lifelong suffering.

The set is deceptively simple. Ditto the music and lighting. The chills peak at just the right moments. As do the laughs. The actors are uniformly capable, capturing an Orwellian sense of dread and destiny one minute, and comically lamenting life the next.

‘The Pillowman’ grabs you and doesn’t let go until all the piglets have turned green. It’s horrifying fun told with style and clever twists, and a nod to the Brothers Grimm.

The ending comes with a provocative bang. Questions abound. Gruesome storytelling has never tasted so good.

    Martin McDonagh
    Martin McDonagh

  • Another production of The Pillowman is playing in Ottawa, Canada; the reviews are positive
  • San Jose Stage Co. threw a nice opening night after-party at Eulipia with food, along with cast & crew
  • I’m convinced this would make a solid black comedy horror movie; although it might be a tougher sell since most movie goers unfortunately want a steady diet of big green screen effects (like Final Destination)
  • Randall King breaks the record for most amount of on-stage smoking I’ve recently seen (someone should keep a running score)
  • Post-show discussions: Sunday, October 4 and Thursday, October 8
  • The Pillowman originally opened in 2003 at the National Theatre in London; it divided critics
  • It opened on Broadway in 2005
  • Awards: Oliveier Award for Best New Play (London), Tony Award nominations for Best Play, Best Direction, Best Leading Actor, Best Featured Actor (New York) and won Tony Awards for it scenic and lighting designs
  • In 1997, at age 27, McDonagh became the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four different plays performed simultaneously in London
  • Chris Rock and Sam Rockwell are said to be eyeing roles in McDonagh’s next play, A Behanding in Spokane, set to open on Broadway next year
  • Loni almost jumped out of her seat at one point, and at least another had to cover her eyes
  • Question of the day: What can we learn about parenting skills in The Pillowman?

The Pillowman
San Jose Stage Company
Sept. 23 – Oct. 18, 2009

Clinton shoots videos for Stark Insider. San Francisco Bay Area arts, Ingmar Bergman and French New Wave, and chasing the perfect home espresso shot 25 seconds at a time (and failing). Peloton: ClintTheMint. Camera: Video Gear