The Pillowman

As staged by 7 Towers Theatre Company, Martin McDonagh's play takes storytelling too far in more ways than one

Grim fairy tales: Travis Bedard as Katurian in <i>The Pillowman</i>
Grim fairy tales: Travis Bedard as Katurian in The Pillowman (Photo courtesy of 7 Towers Theatre Company)

The Pillowman

Dougherty Arts Center Theatre, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.
Through July 28
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

In her program notes for The Pillowman, director Christina Gutierrez warns, "You're going to see some things that are very hard to watch. You're going to hear some things that are very hard to listen to." These are entirely accurate statements – understatements, even. Regardless of when or where Martin McDonagh's sobering play about the gruesome murder of children is performed, it will never be easy to watch or listen. But, like the many theatre companies that have mounted the play since its Royal National Theatre debut a decade ago (including Hyde Park Theatre in 2007), 7 Towers uses McDonagh's play to pose some ultra-tough questions.

As identified by Gutierrez (who, along with cast member Aaron Black, serves as co-artistic director of 7 Towers), "McDonagh asks near-impossible questions about artistic responsibility and posits some disturbing suggestions about what can happen when someone takes a dedication to storytelling too far." Gutierrez refers to The Pillowman's unique but grisly plot, wherein a series of unthinkable killings have been carried out with meticulous parallels to a writer's short stories. The play is set in the room and cell where that writer, Katurian (played here by Travis Bedard), is undergoing interrogation and torture by two government officials while his brother Michal (Black) waits in the next room (the brothers do share an extended scene at one moment). As the truth about the murders unravels, we feel like we're in the middle of a detective story, much to the pride of Detective Tupolski (David J. Boss), the self-proclaimed "good cop" to his partner, Detective Ariel (Stephen Price).

The concept of "taking storytelling too far" might also be applied to 7 Towers' production and its unique (to my knowledge) staging of Katurian's horror stories through shadow puppetry (original puppet design by Katie Rose Pipkin). Though the desire to employ an intriguing mode of storytelling is much appreciated, and it does add texture to the play, especially when one considers the theme of walls – including those of the childhood home – that resonates throughout, the medium left me feeling much distanced from Katurian's prose – a feeling that's difficult to surmount when the play contains nearly 10 such stories. Moreover, the levity in some of the puppet montages felt out of step with much of the production. Yes, one craves the opportunity for a laugh or two in the midst of so much despair, but the alienation from the prose that I experienced so watered down the goings-on that I wasn't able to invest fully in the proceedings.

As Gutierrez notes, "Words ... can beget wonder. We're excited to share these words with you." Ironically, as I left the Dougherty, I realized that it was the words of this Pillowman that I had missed the most.

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The Pillowman, Austin theatre, 7 Towers Theatre Company, Christina Gutierrez, Aaron Black, Travis Bedard, David J. Boss, Stephen Price, Katie Rose Pipkin, Martin McDonagh

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