There’s no gentle place here to rest your weary head for an hour or two of unthinking repose.
Watching “The Pillowman,” Martin McDonagh’s brilliant and trippy play at the Broken Leg Stage — and given a rousing if slightly uneven production by Fresno’s New Ensemble theater company — is more like washing down a couple of No-Doz with a cup of coffee and buzzing through the evening as you toy with big ideas and chuckle at the darkest humor you can imagine.
Director Heather Parish has crafted a keen, insightful production pumped up by stellar performances from James Sherrill and Landon Weiszbrod, two brothers living in an unnamed totalitarian state interrogated about a series of bizarre child murders. Sherrill plays Katurian, a struggling writer whose odd, and frequently violent, short stories mean the world to him. Weiszbrod is Michal, his “slow” sibling, who lives with him.
The play is set within the confines of a police interrogation room — except on a few occasions when Katurian’s stories are acted out in fitful moments of fancy — and there’s a grim, authoritarian bent from the beginning. But don’t let the setting or fact that the police work for a totalitarian regime fool you in terms of the play’s scope. This isn’t a Kafka-redone knockoff about the evils of concentrated power. The potential bureaucratic morass the characters face is almost incidental.
Instead, “The Pillowman” is about storytelling, and as such there’s an almost wistful, childlike tone that settles uneasily, like a gritty layer of beleaguered fairy dust, on the proceedings.
We all tell stories, every one of us, and to a certain extent, how we tell those stories — and how well we absorb the lessons we pick up from them in terms of social adjustment and “fitting in” — determines success in life. Think, for a moment, if humans didn’t tell stories: There’d be no history, no tradition, no religion. (No generational grudges, either, nor barbaric customs.)
But there wouldn’t be the joy of getting lost in a story, either. Or the reassurance of knowing how to behave just because your parents — and their parents — did it that way. We learn good things through stories, and we learn bad things.
This, to me, is a fascinating theme in “The Pillowman.” Then again, I don’t think there’s one answer as to what this play is about — and what McDonagh is trying to say. The invigorating part about it all is letting it all clank around your brain for a while.
Sherrill gives a fierce, lanky performance, his best and most effective I’ve seen him in yet. His love for his brother comes through with an almost scalding intensity — as does his love for his own, weird stories. (When he has occasion to read from some of those stories, the creepy factor ratchets way up.) Weiszbrod, meanwhile, gives us an almost astonishing mannered performance. With his tightly screwed-up eyes and head bobbing, it’s as if he interacts with the world with the distant remove of a blind, bedraggled mendicant.
There are choices that Sherrill and director Parish make that I don’t necessarily agree with. In the intensely moving conclusion to the first act, an interlude that includes Katurian telling his story “The PIllowman” — from which the play’s title is derived — to his brother, I wanted more rage from Sherrill, or at least more of an outward chill demarcating the major plot twist of the scene. To me, sitting a mere few yards away in the intimate Broken Leg space, I wanted to feel more of the character’s inner angst. Yet Sherrill plays the moment with a blankness that left me puzzled. I think this is a deliberate choice, and yet its coldness left me alienated — separated from humanity? — as an audience member. Interesting.
Jaguar Bennett, perfectly cast as the “good cop” interrogator, shines in a well played supporting role. (Only his second act monologue at the Saturday matinee I attended, when he recites his own “story,” lacked the absolute self-confidence in terms of tone and delivery that the moment needed.) Travis Sheridan, however, struggled with his complex role as the “bad cop.” He absolutely needed to be more brutish throughout — more thick and thuglike — to give the play the solid foundation of menace it needs. Yet when his character deepens in the second act, the audience has to feel more of his nascent warmth. In some ways I think Sheridan’s character is the toughest to play in the show, and I do applaud his dedication.
In terms of production design and costuming, I wanted just a little more — to give the minimalist setting just a shade more texture.
All that said, this production does a fine job paying tribute to the brazen appeal of McDonagh’s words. The New Ensemble is obviously blazing a fiery new path at the Broken Leg Stage. That’s a story I’ll never get tired of hearing.