PURE Theatre Company
Running through Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
701 East Bay St., the Cigar Factory
723-4444 or www.puretheatre.org
Last Friday PURE Theatre opened their third play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (the other two being Lonesome West and The Beauty Queen of Leenane) to the same mixed audience response the play, The Pillowman, has received recently in London, New York, and Chicago: one playgoer said it was the best PURE show she's seen; another walked out before intermission.
McDonagh is renowned for the dark humor and casual violence in the three trilogies of plays that preceded The Pillowman. Here, though, there's less humor and more darkness. Pillowman is not horribly gory; in fact, there is very little visible violence. In true thriller style, the brutality here is mostly anticipated and imagined.
A writer named Katurian, author of one published short story and hundreds of unpublished ones, is being held in an interrogation room while his brother Michal is being questioned in another room. The matter at hand is a series of local child murders, committed in ways that bear a striking resemblance to murders described in Katurian's stories. Those stories are peppered throughout the play, along with other sidetracks into other stories.
McDonagh leaves his grotesquely comfortable Irish settings and moves this play into an unnamed "totalitarian dictatorship," one that's more vague and surreal than definitively indicative of an actual geographical place. The detective duo in this interrogation is comprised of self-identifying "good cop" Tupolski (R.W. Smith) and his prickly, explosive subordinate Ariel (Matt Bivins).
Tupolski is actually the more surprising character. With Ariel, you know to expect the unexpected. When Tupolski throws in a new twist, it's more unsettling. Smith gives Tupolski a controlled relaxation; strangely enough, you kind of want to see him snap. Smith delves into Tupolski as storyteller and master of his own little show, and it plays nicely.
Bivins, though, isn't consistent enough in his portrayal to leave a great impression of his work. Ariel has a history, and he has dreams. When Bivins is locked into those particular moments, it's beautiful and sublime; he gets it. But the moments in which he loses the character, he really loses it, and you can see the intensity leave his eyes.
As the brothers, Rodney Lee Rogers and Nat Jones show the loyal bonds that trauma and family forge. In their scenes together, their closeness, dependence, knowledge, and priorities all shift beautifully. Rogers plays Katurian solidly — he even commands a scene where he has a paper bag over his head. He gives Katurian a complex mixture of desperation, impertinence, fear, coldness, and protectiveness.
Nat Jones' Michal is a gentle and, surprisingly, consistently likeable man-child. Jones is thoroughly convincing in his simplicity — even when Michal lies, it's straightforward for him. Jones remains sweet, even when Michal's darkness comes through.
Director Peter Karapetkov has done well with McDonagh's material, providing a dose of comedic mood where some directors might choose to overlook that in favor of more "edgy" and dark interpretations. Karapetkov handles the torture scenes pretty capably, considering that there's no distance between audience and stage at PURE to work with for illusion's sake. So when Ariel beats up Katurian behind a desk, the method is understandable, but it does seem a bit coy. The ensemble engages nicely in the constantly shifting dynamics — the assumptions of the positions of leader and follower, of storyteller and listener. Sometimes, though, the staging doesn't quite work: for instance, the detectives playing ping pong over Katurian's bagged head in the opening scene, while evident in purpose, is more of a distraction for both audience and actors than an artistic vehicle. But the overall production remains fairly tight, and at least consistently interesting. The violence described in the play isn't really much worse than what crops up in Grimm brothers' fairy tales, Edward Gorey books, or the fables of Struwwelpeter (also brought to the stage in 1997's Julian Crouch-helmed Shockheaded Peter). PURE's stark, disturbing setting involves movable chain-link cage walls and plastic drop-cloth draped along most surfaces.
Michal lies to Katurian, Katurian lies to the police, and the police lie to the brothers. It's all part of what Katurian discusses with Michal — just because something was said doesn't make it true. It's the essence of storytelling, the very thing that Katurian holds so dear.
McDonagh certainly knows how to spin a good yarn in the tradition of Irish storytelling. His play is a collection of short stories, in a way; it is comprised of stories the way Katurian is made up of his stories. His engaging tales, woven together with each of the characters' histories, make up for an exciting play. PURE's production serves it well, and reminds us of the power of simply telling good stories.