We are not animals. We are watching. But what if we are animals and are not to be trusted? Forum Theatre brings to the stage in a fully immersive and unapologetically evocative experience Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Directed by Yury Urnov, this deceptively dark drama and majestically macabre tale unfolds in a surreal reality that is simultaneously in the audience’s periphery and just outside of their vision. Remarkably experiential, as the audience is quite literally the on-looking totalitarian dictatorship masses, this striking production will keep you unnaturally enthralled straight through to the show’s shocking and deeply harrowing conclusion.
A show’s aesthetic is an enticing factor on its own, doubly so when the show becomes immersive to the point of drawing the audience into its reality from the lobby exposure onward. Fabricating a fully submerged reality where the play’s existence melts fluidly into the perceptive actuality of the audience, Set Designer Paige Hathaway, working inside the visionary parameters of Director Yury Urnov, exposes the audience to the live interrogation of writer Katurian K. Katurian by placing theatergoers directly in the midst of the events as they unfold. With a dynamically displaced three-quarters thrusted stage setup, Hathaway frames the audience so that they are the on-looking investigators. Lighting Designer Jason Arnold turns this notion on its head, juxtaposing this reality with that of a visual scoping technique wherein the audience starts the production off seeing only through the eyes of the accused, remaining in darkness so long as he is blindfolded.
Arnold’s work speaks for itself in both its dramatic effect and pure wondrous display. The luminescence and shadow play featured in ebbing waves throughout the performance creates palpable shifts in moods, whether they are to darkly alight a story as it unfurls, highlight an ugly truth as it unwinds, or blindside the innocence of a situation as it is unmasked. There is spectacle and wonder, yet earnestly achieved, in Arnold’s design work, and this furthers the immersive experience as the audience’s eyes are invited into the demented dance of shadows, silhouettes, and other unsavory sensations through the lens of his work. Adding to the aesthetical amazement is the work of Sound Designer Justin Schmitz. Creating an aural symphony that is both distressingly beautiful and frighteningly unsettling, Schmitz fits the emotional turmoil of the show succinctly into the burbling soundscape, whether it’s the haunting music that floats along beneath the stories that are told, or the background effects featured during the initial interrogation encounter, driving home an ominous sense of foreboding around each and every sinister twist of the plot.
Completing the audience-steeped aesthetic is the work of Costume Designer Robert Croghan and Properties Designer Patti Kalil. While the outfits and props of the show are not directly integrated into the audience’s experience the way the set and other production design elements are (The Commandant’s militaristic costume excluded from such exclusions), they are more than worthy of praise if for nothing but the curious shock value that they add to the performance, particularly the hand-scrawled story of “The Tale of the Town on the River” and the unnerving faceless puppet children.
There are too many moments of perfection captured under glass like a radiant living specimen to mention in Director Yury Urnov’s work. Between the immersive hybrid of interactive theatre where the audience is not only watching but living the play and the overall stellar approach to the pacing— the first act is nearly two hours in length but feels like a mere blink in the time-space continuum— it can be said that this production is both astonishing and phenomenal. Urnov’s approach to the more brutal topics and overarching themes contained within the work are poignantly topical, particularly the direct exposure to police corruption and brutality. Augmented by the exacting work of Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba, moments where these situations come to a head bring the audience to the edge of their seats, riveted to the action as it is pounded out onto the stage.
Ariel (Bradley Foster Smith) and Tupolski (Jim Jorgensen) not only represent but fully embody the notion of “bad cop/good cop” respectively. Smith’s portrayal of the high-strung and spastically combative type-A personality officer is an exaggerated caricature of the worst perception of overly corrupt people in positions in powerful authority. Jorgensen delivers a much subtler, milder, and calmer approach to his detective, though is not without his breaking points and progressive build-ups as the story unravels. The haughty disregard of actual justice that underscores both Jorgensen and Smith’s performances is jarring but not unsurprising; their dynamic deliveries of human beings who have become corrupted by the very profession that is meant to prevent such corruption is powerful, poignant, and pungent, packing punches to the gut with heavy weight behind them.
The stories belong to Katurian (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) but the story itself is half his and half his brother’s tale. Michal (James Konicek) is as much the protagonist in The Pillowman as Katurian, if not more so at times, and the way the story— both in and of itself and the telling thereof— wends between the two brothers is fascinating. Ebrahimzadeh delivers his character with a striking level of vulnerability and earnestness. There is no subversion or provocation in his portrayal, only honest emotions, most of which translate plainly across his vividly expressed face. When Ebrahimzadeh delves into ‘storytelling mode’ either directly to the audience, like in cases of “The Writer and The Writer’s Brother” or in “The Little Jesus”, he becomes a vessel of words that transports the tale to our ears and our ears to the tale. When engaging in stories that he tells directly to Michal, such as “The Pillowman” and “The Little Green Pig”, Ebrahimzadeh takes on a much more animated tone, knowing that his tales are meant to reach the inner childlike mentality of his brother.
Konicek, as the damaged brother, toes a fine line in portraying this character as such. With a present mindfulness of childlike naiveté, Konicek delivers the epitome of balance to Michal in keeping him simple but not stupid, convivial without falling into the archetype of the mentally-challenged adult. The compassion with which he imbues certain aspects of the character’s affectation— like nervous responses or irritated flare-ups— are manifested in a mostly physical fashion and these rings true to the way in which McDonagh has penned Michal. Konicek’s energy seems indefatigable, and he is perpetually in motion, even when at rest or cowering into a stillness, cajoled there by his brother. The fraternal relationship that is portrayed between Konicek and Ebrahimzadeh is one tested with deeper bonds than blood and held fast by a readily identifiable notion of love and protection.
The story is harrowing. The story is beautiful. The story is striking and evocative, and filled with moments that shock, that strike the emotional core of humanity, that arouse our darkly amused demons which we wish to ignore. A story not to be missed, Forum Theatre’s The Pillowman is a gripping production that will leave you speechless by story’s end.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission
The Pillowman plays through April 2, 2016 at Forum Theatre in residence at The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre— 8641 Colesville Road in the heart of downtown Silver Spring, MD. To purchase tickets call the box office at (301) 588-8279 or purchase them online.