Review: 'The Pillowman' at LTV Delves Into the Darkest Corners of Humanity - 27 East

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Review: 'The Pillowman' at LTV Delves Into the Darkest Corners of Humanity

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Sawyer Spielberg as Michal and John Kroft as Katurian in Martin McDonagh's play

Sawyer Spielberg as Michal and John Kroft as Katurian in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

The set of Martin McDonagh's play

The set of Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Joe Pallister as Ariel in Martin McDonagh's play

Joe Pallister as Ariel in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Joe Pallister as Ariel, John Kroft as Katurian and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play

Joe Pallister as Ariel, John Kroft as Katurian and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft as Katurian, Edward Kassar as Tupolski and Joe Pallister as Ariel in Martin McDonagh's play

John Kroft as Katurian, Edward Kassar as Tupolski and Joe Pallister as Ariel in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft as Katurian and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play

John Kroft as Katurian and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft as Katurian, Joe Pallister as Ariel and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play

John Kroft as Katurian, Joe Pallister as Ariel and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Sawyer Spielberg as Michal in Martin McDonagh's play

Sawyer Spielberg as Michal in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Sawyer Spielberg as Michal and John Kroft as Katurian in Martin McDonagh's play

Sawyer Spielberg as Michal and John Kroft as Katurian in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Sawyer Spielberg as Michal and John Kroft as Katurian in Martin McDonagh's play

Sawyer Spielberg as Michal and John Kroft as Katurian in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft as Katurian and Joe Pallister as Ariel in Martin McDonagh's play

John Kroft as Katurian and Joe Pallister as Ariel in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

Joe Pallister as Ariel, John Kroft as Katurian and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play

Joe Pallister as Ariel, John Kroft as Katurian and Edward Kassar as Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

"Good cop" Tupolski (Edward Kassar) and "bad cop" Ariel (Joe Pallister) in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft as Katurian sharing a story in Martin McDonagh's play

John Kroft as Katurian sharing a story in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

John Kroft (Katurian) and Sawyer Spielberg (Michal) sharing stories in Martin McDonagh's play

John Kroft (Katurian) and Sawyer Spielberg (Michal) sharing stories in Martin McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" at LTV Studios. PHIL MERRITT

authorAnnette Hinkle on Apr 29, 2024

What do you see in your nightmares? Is it drawn from some traumatic, real-life experience? Or maybe your bad dreams are something else. Something more nefarious in nature — highlighted by a vague sense of foreboding and looming dread that possesses no name, yet allows your imagination to fill in the blanks of an unnamed terror. Well, here’s a name for it — “The Pillowman.”

That’s the title of Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play, which is currently running at LTV Studios in East Hampton. The play is being presented by Playwrights’ Theatre of East Hampton in conjunction with Kassar Productions, a new theatrical venture created by actor Edward Kassar (who has one of the four roles here), and is directed by Stephen Hamilton, best known locally as a co-founder of Bay Street Theatre.

Hamilton, an avowed fan of McDonagh’s work, has previously directed two of his plays on the East End — “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and “The Lonesome West.” But “The Pillowman” is something else entirely and it’s definitely not for everyone. If you saw McDonagh’s 2022 film “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which people seem to either love or hate, you probably understand a bit of what you’re getting into with this one.

There’s a story circulating that McDonagh was inspired to write this play in response to critics who felt that his previous works were too dark. “Dark?” one can imagine McDonagh saying. “You want dark?” The playwright’s answer, “The Pillowman,” is a no holds barred script that treads — no, tramples — on every taboo which, up to this point, has generally — no, definitely — been considered off-limits. Child abuse and molestation? It’s in here. Parricide (that’s the killing of not just one, but both parents)? Yep, that’s in here too, as are disappearances, disabilities, suicide, racism, mutilation, torture, murder of kids, even Christianity gets its dark moment in the sun.

It’s all done under the guise of a series of twisted fairy tales with, believe it

or not, a liberal dose of humor. Which in a way, is probably the most effective method of disarming and rendering impotent the most disturbing aspects of human depravity.

“The Pillowman” opens in a stark interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian society. A blindfolded Katurian (John Kroft), his wrists bound in zip ties, is seated at a desk. A writer by trade, he has absolutely no clue why he’s there, so he’s doing his best to please his tormentors — the “good cop” Tupolski (Edward Kassar) and the very “bad cop” Ariel (Joe Pallister).

After removing Katurian’s blindfold and playing a bit of psychological volleyball with their quarry, Ariel takes the ball and runs with it by indulging in a bit of torture. He, in particular, seems to be on a hair trigger, prone to unprovoked outbreaks. He greatly enjoys tormenting the subject, like a cat playing with a mouse before the kill.

Then Katurian sees on the desk a folder filled with a stack of papers — specifically, stories. More specifically, Katurian’s own fictitious stories, many of which, if not most, are twisted tales involving the unsavory demise of his characters, often children, with an ironic twist.

At first, Katurian can only imagine he’s been arrested for some unintentional political slight — maybe one of his stories has offended an authority figure in the authoritarian state. And then the cops start reading the stories aloud.

The first, “The Little Apple Men,” is about a young girl who is mistreated by her father. She responds by crafting a series of tiny figures from apples — and into each one, she embeds a razor blade (a la the old Halloween urban legend). The girl gives the apple figures to her father as a gift and asks him to save them, but he scoffs at the notion and eats several, which kill him. That night, as the girl lay in bed, the remaining apple men come to her and accuse her of killing their brothers, so they jump down her throat and kill her.

Another Katurian story shared by the cops, “The Tale of the Town on the River,” goes like this: A neglected boy (poorly treated children are an unending theme in this play) shares part of his sandwich with a stranger he meets by the river. The stranger, hooded and dressed in black, is driving a carriage filled with empty cages in the back. He thanks the boy for his generosity by chopping off the child’s toes. It is soon revealed that the stranger is the Pied Piper, who, in the famous fairy tale, led not just the rats of Hamlin to their demise, but in a pique of revenge, also the children. By cutting off the boy’s toes, he ironically spares him from that unsavory fate.

Soon, Katurian comes to realize that the cops have arrested him as a suspect, as there have been a very real series of murders of children in the community by methods bearing a striking resemblance to the stories. He also learns that his older, developmentally disabled brother, Michal (Sawyer Spielberg), has been arrested as well, and he hears Ariel torturing him in the next room.

So that’s the set-up of “The Pillowman,” and as Act II begins, the brothers are reunited in a cell where they compare notes about what they have said to the police and what they each may or may not have actually done in reality. In the course of their conversation, what unfolds is another story. This one close to the truth, revealing the cruelty of Katurian and Michal’s parents when they, themselves, were children.

Looking for comfort, Michal asks Katurian to tell him more stories from their youth, including the one about “The Pillowman,” a massive, fluffy white character with a wide smile made of tiny pillow teeth. The Pillowman may be soft, but he’s not comforting in the way one might hope. His mission is to visit children who he knows will grow up to lead horribly tragic lives as adults. With an altruistic hand, he helps these children end their own lives early, in ways that appear to be tragic accidents, in order to save them from a much worse fate as adults.

Like all of Katurian’s stories, there is an ironic twist in the end that hits close to home. As the cops edge closer to piecing the truth all together, we come to understand the lengths that Katurian is willing to go in order to preserve his written legacy for future generations. Exactly how it will play out in the police station, however, is something you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Despite its propensity for taking a deep dive into dark matter, “The Pillowman” is actually quite funny — if you have the stomach for that kind of humor. The description of violence becomes so over the top, it enters a different realm — like the oversaturation of a violent video game or the macabre way in which, centuries ago, stories focused on children who wandered off into the woods where they encountered ravenous wolves and evil witches with alarming regularity.

Ultimately, how you feel about this play will largely depend on where you are coming from in your life, emotionally speaking. Baggage has a way of attaching itself firmly to the psyche, and the morals of fairy tales can either put it in context or add weight to the burden.

In either case, there is great on-stage chemistry with this cast. Director Stephen Hamilton is obviously in his element, and getting great performances from the actors, who seem to really be enjoying (if that’s the right word for it) their time on stage. As Tupolski, Edward Kassar shows superb comedic timing. He is a hilarious foil to the tightly-wound Ariel, as portrayed by an often intimidating Joe Pallister, who has his own secrets to hide. You definitely wouldn’t want to find yourself being questioned by this guy. As for the brothers, Katurian and Michal, John Kroft and Sawyer Spielberg do the heavy lifting here, with Kroft’s protective treatment of his disabled brother always well-meaning, if at times a bit misguided. Spielberg brings great tenderness and skill to his portrayal of Michal and, like Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” we can’t help but feel for him, no matter what he did or didn’t do.

Despite the paired down set and studio-like surroundings of LTV, adding depth to the production is a cleverly designed shadow puppet sequence by set designer Brenna Leaver with input from puppeteer Liz Joyce, and sound design by David M. Brandenburg. The audio cues alone will set you on edge and leave you there.

Again, be forewarned that “The Pillowman” is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who can hang on, it’s quite the ride. The inevitable damage that is done through the process of living life is a theme that can’t be avoided, and if you can manage to not look away, like those children in the fairy tales who survive, you might come away just a little bit wiser.

Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” runs Friday through Sunday, May 3 to 5. Shows are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, at 7:30 p.m. Due to the graphic descriptions in the play, children under age 16 will not be admitted. Tickets are $25 ($15 students) at ltveh.org and $30 at the door. For information, call 631-537-2777. LTV Studios is at 75 Industrial Road in Wainscott.

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