Martin McDonagh’s 'The Pillowman' Comes to LTV Studios - 27 East

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Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Pillowman’ Comes to LTV Studios

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John Kroft (as Katurian), and Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's

John Kroft (as Katurian), and Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" running April 25 to May 5 at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's

John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," running April 25 to May 5 at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's

John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," running April 25 to May 5 at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's

John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," running April 25 to May 5 at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Joe Pallister (as Ariel), John Kroft (as Katurian), and, in foreground, Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's

Joe Pallister (as Ariel), John Kroft (as Katurian), and, in foreground, Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" running April 25 to May 5 at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Stephen Hamilton is directing Martin McDonagh's

Stephen Hamilton is directing Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. The show runs from April 25 to May 5. PHIL MERRITT

Joe Pallister (as Ariel), John Kroft (as Katurian), and, in foreground, Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's

Joe Pallister (as Ariel), John Kroft (as Katurian), and, in foreground, Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" running April 25 to May 5 at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Stephen Hamilton directs Joe Pallister (as Ariel), and John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's

Stephen Hamilton directs Joe Pallister (as Ariel), and John Kroft (as Katurian) during rehearsals of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" running April 25 to May 5 at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft (as Katurian), Joe Pallister (as Ariel) and, in foreground, Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) rehearsing Martin McDonagh's

John Kroft (as Katurian), Joe Pallister (as Ariel) and, in foreground, Edward Kassar (as Tupolski) rehearsing Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. The show runs from April 25 to May 5. PHIL MERRITT

authorAnnette Hinkle on Apr 15, 2024

It’s no secret. Stephen Hamilton is a big fan of playwright Martin McDonagh. In fact, over the years, Hamilton — who in the early 1990s co-founded Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre with his wife Emma Walton Hamilton and Sybil Christopher — has directed McDonagh’s plays in East End productions, including “The Cripple of Inishmaan” for Guild Hall in 2013 and “The Lonesome West” at The Stephen Talkhouse in 2001.

It’s an admirable undertaking, given that McDonagh’s work is never easy and often quite controversial.

Though he was born and raised in London, McDonagh’s parents were Irish — his mother was from County Sligo and his father from County Galway — and he frequently sets his fictional scripts in Ireland-esque locales. In addition to his plays, McDonagh has also written and directed for the screen, and his 2022 Academy Award-nominated film “The Banshees of Inisherin,” about a friendship gone awry, is tinged with violence in the form of self-mutilation. It’s billed as a comedy, by the way.

With a sensibility that is always dark and often twisted, frequently with a bit of macabre humor thrown in, perhaps none of McDonagh’s scripts are quite as controversially gruesome as “The Pillowman,” which Hamilton is directing for an April 25 to May 4 run presented by Kassar Productions at East Hampton’s LTV Studios.

“Oh my God! I’m in my sweet spot – f---ing terrified and elated at the same time,” admitted Hamilton when asked about this particular play. “It’s McDonagh.”

It is indeed.

Set in a fictional, totalitarian state, “The Pillowman,” which went to Broadway in 2005, tells the story of Katurian (John Kroft), a writer of gruesome short stories that often involve children — think Brothers Grimm, but even grimmer. The plot soon reveals that Katurian grew up a favored son, receiving preferential treatment over his brother Michal (Sawyer Spielberg), who was subjected to their parents’ abuse. After the murders of three young children in the community that bear a striking resemblance to Katurian’s stories, the writer is arrested and interrogated by two authority figures — Tupolski (Edward Kassar) and Ariel (Joe Pallister).

“There are themes of artists’ responsibility throughout, and intergenerational trauma, and how it reverberates throughout time to the past, present and future,” Hamilton said. “What we discover is, the parents, as a form of an artistic experiment, gave one son, the writer, all the advantages he could possibility dream of — all the encouragement, love and materials to become a successful artist and creative person. Whereas the other son, they did nothing but traumatize physically, brutally with all methods of torture. They wanted to see the influence the trauma of one son would have on the other.

“It’s really disturbing, but hilarious,” added Hamilton, who explained that McDonagh was purportedly inspired to write “The Pillowman” in the wake of his big stage hits like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Lonesome West.”

"At the height of his early success in the theater, critics began to question why McDonagh's work was consistently dark. He wrote ‘The Pillowman,’ perhaps his bleakest, most brutal piece, as a response,” Hamilton said. “When I was at Bay Street, the producer brought this play to us as a pre-Broadway run. Sybil, Emma and I were huge McDonough fans, but we said we can’t do this here. It was too intimidating at the time.

“It’s great to have this opportunity now to produce it with those folks willing to take the ride with us,” he added.

Those folks include LTV Studios Creative Director Josh Gladstone, who last year revived Playwrights Theatre of East Hampton, a long-running venture that provided theatrical troupes from the New York metro area a local venue for their work, and actor Edward Kassar, who recently created Kassar Productions in order to present stage offerings of his choosing. Though this past November, Kassar and Kroft appeared in a weekend run at The Clubhouse Hamptons of Michael Puzzo’s two-hander “The Dirty Talk,” directed by Hamilton, “The Pillowman” will be Kassar’s first full-fledged production under his company’s banner.

“I want to work on things that I want to do — and work with people I like and respect,” Kassar explained. “Josh came to see ‘The Dirty Talk’ at The Clubhouse. I’ve known Josh a long time. He’s a talented actor, director and producer, and we talked about coproducing this. It’s my most ambitious undertaking with all the responsibility, both artistically and financially.”

It was Kassar’s idea to produce and act in “The Pillowman,” and he brought the idea to Hamilton, asking him to direct. While Hamilton loved the idea of directing a McDonagh play once again, some of his initial reluctance to “The Pillowman” remained and it took some convincing on the part of Kassar to get him to agree to helm the show.

“When Eddie brought it to me, I said, ‘It’s just so dark.’ It took me a while to come around,” Hamilton said. “Part of the reason I said ‘yes,’ was the cast Eddie presented — Joe Pallister, John Kroft, who’s a young actor I’ve worked with before, and Sawyer Spielberg who I’ve wanted to work with for years. Presented with that, I couldn’t resist.”

In order to alleviate some of his discomfort with the more troubling material, Hamilton has made tweaks to neutralize the most controversial aspects of the play — specifically, he has removed the characters of a mother, father and child who appear in the original script.

“That was a line I was not willing to cross. In fact, it made us work more creatively in the solutions,” Hamilton said. “We’re using the idea of Brothers Grimm and Arthur Rackham illustrations in the beginning of the 20th century and representing those characters in a more theatrical way.”

For that aspect of the show, Hamilton is turning to stagecraft and the talents of designer Brenna Leaver and puppet work by Liz Joyce of Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre. LTV is an interesting space for inventive theater and one that invites creative solutions, as it defies traditional conventions. Lacking curtains or a classic proscenium arch, the stage evokes a setting that works well with productions like this. It also helps that Perry Pazer, who founded the original Playwrights Theatre of East Hampton in 1992 with his wife, Mitzi, has provided some financial support to the effort.

“We are a converted black box flexible studio space that can be configured anyway we want,” Gladstone explained. “It doesn’t have a fixed proscenium stage or fixed seating. It’s got an edgy, undefined quality to it that works.

“I see LTV as the Off Broadway or downtown of the Hamptons theater scene. We are not beholden in the same way that other theaters are, so it gives us that freedom,” Gladstone added. “We don’t have the same resources, but we can be plucky and adventurous because there are no expectations of us. No one is telling us what we have to do.

“This is a community resource. If artists pitch a project and we have the time and ability to make it happen, it will,” he said. “This is a first. LTV hasn’t produced a play that has run for more than one week. So this will be a nice launching.”

From his perspective as both an actor and producer, Kassar likes the LTV space for “The Pillowman,” and he finds it fitting, given the vague ambiguity of the script’s setting.

“It works for this,” Kassar said. “The play takes place in an unnamed location at no specific time, in a totalitarian state. It’s a great space. I did a couple staged readings there and the starkness and minimalistic venue adds to the experience.”

That puts the emphasis firmly on the actors and the words of the script, and Hamilton is happy to be back in his element, at the helm directing a McDonagh play.

“I need to take the oeuvre of McDonagh and wonder what it is for me that attracts me to the work,” Hamilton mused. “I’ve wracked my brain. There’s something about the interplay between the brutality and the comedy that ultimately reveals this humanity. It is deeply moving, deeply troubling and deeply human. That’s what it is for me and I think that’s why he draws other people to his work.

“McDonagh's challenge to his audience has been consistent from the start,” he added. “It’s the same timeless challenge we face as humans — how to bring order from chaos, to find love in a loveless world, and in the midst of darkness, to find a small measure of light.”

Playwrights’ Theatre of East Hampton in association with Kassar Productions presents Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” at LTV Studios from April 25 to May 5. Due to the graphic description of violence in the play, children under the age of 16 will not be admitted. Performances are Thursday through Saturday, April 25 to 27, at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday matinee on April 28 at 3 p.m.; and again Friday through Sunday, May 2 to 5, at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door, and $15 for students at ltveh.org or at the door. For more information call 631-537-2777. LTV Studios is at 75 Industrial Road in Wainscott.

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