If a play's stage directions require the use of fake blood, it's sure to be an exciting event Â— at least in my estimation. The Berkeley Rep's production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman does not disappoint. The Pillowman features gallons of the aforementioned fake blood, as well as severed toes (also fake, I hope), insane children, flying spittle, and parents so evil that "evil" becomes a comic overstatement.
Short story writer Katurian and his twisted brother Michal have been jailed for the murders of three local children. They have come under suspicion because the gruesome methods behind the killings are identical to those in Katurian's stories (which feature particularly creative child murders). The grisly truths behind the murders and the inspiration for Katurian's nightmarish fiction are eventually revealed, but along the way The Pillowman jangles the senses, a kaleidoscope of horrors, real and imagained.
The Berkeley Rep's production is fabulous -- the lighting suitably drab, the set's spareness contrasting nicely with Katurian's elaborately creepy memories and fantasies, which are enacted on a raised platform upstage while he narrates. It's as if we can see the inner workings of his mind -- and be prepared, because the unglued contents therein will disturb and unsettle you. Each of the sound effects in The Pillowman, from a little girl scratching at the inside of her coffin to the whine of drills and crackling electrodes, was quite effective -- amongst a host of effects, these sounds were particularly evocative.
So evocative, in fact, that intermission came as a relief. On the night I attended, the room at intermission buzzed with conversation. People were NOT discussing dinner, babysitters or plans for the weekend. They were talking about the play. I overheard one patron, a man wearing an abalone-shell necklace, complain about how the other audience members snickered inappropriately during what he considered a serious play. And yet, I found many of the lines in The Pillowman funny. The playbill promises laughter, so I wondered about the source of this man's confusion.
Maybe it was Erik Lochtefeld's rendering of Katurian, who's often consumed with terror (as anyone would be when under interrogation with threat of execution). That is, Lochtefeld might have given a performance that allowed us to relax and laugh with a clear conscience if he hadn't so strongly emphasized Katurian's fear. But emphasize it, he did. In plenty of instances, Lochtefeld's stance reminds us that Katurian is well aware that his stories are gothic grotesqueries, and even when he's being questioned by two sadistic detectives, even when he's tremblingly obeisant, the glee he takes in his fiction's over-the-top horror is apparent -- as is an author's pride. Katurian has learned to turn his harrowing past into art.
I had no objections to Lochtefeld's performance, as I enjoy being kept off-balance. In fact, I was deeply impressed by everyone in The Pillowman. Matthew Maher's Michal, Katurian's brain-damaged brother, uses psychological dissociation to provide a very creepy kind of humor, contrasting the emotional depth of his words with a flat, neutral delivery. His bald head is as expressive as Ben Kingsley's. Tony Amendola as Agent Tupolski is charmingly acid, while Andy Murray as "bad cop" Ariel is his perfect foil.
The Berkeley Rep's rendition of The Pillowman is the best thing I've seen in a long time. I'm still thinking about how our egos are invested in our art and trying to figure out when laughter is inappropriate. And I'm still haunted by the play's central image -- a kind, sad man made out of pillows. It's one of many vivid images arising from The Pillowman's intricate storyline (or rather lines), stories within stories as much about storytelling as grisly child murder, torture and imprisonment and the vanity of the artist.
The Pillowman plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley through February 25, 2007. Purchase tickets (at berkeleyrep.org).