The Pillowman

It is closing weekend for The Pillowman at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick and the orientation of the quirky mainstage has been transformed into a thrust space for the current season. Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy takes place in a fictional police state and Todd Mazzie’s set transports us to an interrogation room with disconcertingly stained walls and the emergency exit stage door smartly used with a card swipe and lighting change as the only way in and out. Some of the other details of the environment feel a little under developed but it’s a convincing enough back drop.

We begin with Katurian (Steve Custer) being brought in for questioning by detectives Tupolski (J.D. Sivert) and Ariel (Joe Jalette). The early blocking by director Peter Wray seems overly concerned with the sight-line challenges of the new stage layout and the movement feels a little forced and unjustified. That plays its’ part in what is actually a very short first act, dragging a little. The dynamics just don’t quite work in the early going – Sivert gets all the required laughs but only dips a toe into exploring the darker side of his character and the stylized performance of Jalette isn’t sadistic enough to act as a counterpoint in the relationship. Custer is very natural in his delivery as he learns about his situation, testing his boundaries with his captors, and his moments of guttural anger are truly compelling. The issue comes when the emotion switches to fear and panic – like a singer going into their head voice from their chest voice. Custer lives in this vocal range too often and while he commits fully, a terrified whisper punctuated by one or two of these moments would have felt more authentic.

The second act gets under way with Katurian in storytelling mode. The Writer and the Brother is central to the plot but while Custer excels in the telling of the story we are left with the feeling there were more creative ways to visualize the tale than the slightly awkward presence of Ron Ward and Caitlyn Joy as the Mother and Father. There are striking moments however and that sets the mood for the scene between Katurian and his brother Michal (Sean Byrne) that is the strongest of the show. The character development between director and actors is on full display here as the tragic details of events past and present intertwine. Byrne is terrific as the ‘slow’ brother and while at times the performance is almost too subtle, his mannerisms are on the right side of a line which we would not want him to overstep. There are moments where Byrne’s smart choice to be uncomfortable with making eye contact with his brother backfire as he appears to be looking directly at the audience and it is enough to take us out of the moment.

The Little Jesus story starts the final act and the girl (Karli Cole) carries a worryingly large cross around the stage and despite one laugh out loud moment with Cole lip syncing to Custer’s dialogue (and the smart transformation as part of the set into a coffin) we are again left to wonder what might have been achieved with more left to the imagination.

We return to the original interrogation room and the chemistry between Custer and Jalette has much more spark to it from this point forwards. There is still a sense that Sivert is playing Tupolski a little too cute and there are moments during the telling of his story about a deaf Chinese boy where the racist choice of his character feels border line gratuitous. The brilliance of McDonagh’s writing and the twist in the tail (SIC) are slightly mishandled as new evidence is brought into the room (as we try and avoid spoilers) and is portrayed in the dream like fashion of earlier not the reality we have created. That is quickly forgotten, however, as in a powerful final scene Katurian stands at the front of the stage, Michal stands in the doorway and Ariel is frozen, bent over the desk. It’s beautifully staged, beautifully lit, and a moving end to the production.

#tothepoint Rating 66/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $20

Value Rating: +$12

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $32. The Pillowman continues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre until March 11th.