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THE PILLOWMAN–a chilling look at life and death @ convergence continuum

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Clyde Simon, Artistic Director of convergence continuum, has a knack for finding off-beat, provocative plays that incite discussion and strong reactions from the theatre’s loyal following.  That group, and probably many more, will find themselves entranced by Martin McDonagh’s  black comedy, “The Pillowman.”

The play is set in an unnamed country whose symbol is a large five cornered red star, which is bannered on the wall of the interrogation room in which the story takes place.  The symbol is also emblazoned on the armbands of the two government officials, one a detective, the other a law enforcement officer, who are conducting an “interview” with a short story writer, whose “crime,” at the start of the play, is unknown.

Before the tale is over, suicide, murder, decapitation, the sadness of life, sadism, perversion, incest, childhood deaths, misguided love, and inhuman torture is exposed through a volley of “f” bombs, sick humor, and storytelling.

The audience is swept along, reacting in strange ways.  There is laughter when the response should be cries of anguish.  There are times when watching and listening should be replaced by closing of eyes and refusing to hear the goings on.  But pay attention we do.

“The Pillowman” tells the story of Katurian (his first, middle and last name), a short story “fiction” writer, who composes tales which are often bizarre tellings of child mistreatment and murder.  He has been brought to a secret place and is being interrogated by Tupolski (a detective) and Ariel (a brutish officer with a tendency to use torture to get desired answers).   Katurian’s “slow witted” brother, who is in the next room, is supposedly also being questioned.

As the story unravels, over a two-and-a-half hour period, we become aware of the strange childhood experiences of the brothers, at the hands of their step-parents.

Readings and enactments of some of Katurian’s stories are presented.  The most revealing as to the actions of the brothers are, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother,” (a boy is encouraged to write happy stories by his parents, but the sounds of torture in the next room soon results in his writing disturbing tales);

“The  Pillowman,”(a being made of pillows visits people on the verge of suicide); “The Little Appleman, “ (a young girl carves little people out of apples into which she places razor blades); “The Tale of the Town By the River,” (a reinterpretation of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin”); and “The Little Green Pig (a green pig, who enjoys his strange coloring, and is mocked by the other pigs).

Assuming that the brothers will soon be executed, Katurian attempts to make their impending deaths less traumatic for his brother, and save his legacy, his stories, from destruction.  Whether he is successful or not, and the role in that decision by his torturer, Ariel, leads to McDonagh’s dénouement.

The play received a 2003 Olivier Award for Best New Play, a 2004-2005 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play, and two Tony Award nominations.

Con-con’s production, under the direction of long-time company member, Geoffrey Hoffman, is often compelling.  The length and wordiness of the play sometime gets in the way, but the over-all pacing, staging and acting leads to a disturbing set of feelings that last long after the production is over.

The cast is quite good.  The highlight performance is turned in by Daniel McElhaney, as Michal, Katurian’s child-like and childish brother.  He develops a vulnerable character who elicits viewer compassion.

Tom Kondilas uses his deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyes to display bewilderment, understanding, and desperateness.   Robert Hawkes is excellent as Tupolski, the emotionally “in control” detective with an underlying layer of seething purpose.

Stuart Hoffman, the “bad cop,” shows menace well.  His most effective moments are at the play’s conclusion.  Nicole McLaughlin and Melissa Frelich are believable in their supporting roles.

Capsule Judgement:  “The Pillowman” is a disturbing script which gets a mainly effective production at con-con.  It is not a play for those who go to the theatre for escapism, but it will be of interest to the type of theatre-goer that likes to delve into the world of motivations, philosophical decisions, and the effects of the actions of others on the psyche.

“The Pillowman” runs through October 18, 2014 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to

Con-con’s last show of this season is Mark O’Rowe’s “The Terminus,” a tale of three people who are ripped from their daily lives and catapulted into a fantastical world of singing serial killers, avenging angels, and lovesick demons.  It runs from November 21-December 20, 2014.