Image: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as “Katurian” and James Konicek as “Michal” in The Pillowman at Forum Theatre, Silver Spring, MD. Teresa Castracane Photography.
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
The lights come up on a man in custody. Two detectives are interrogating him.
They browbeat him, beat him up, tell him that his brother is being tortured in a nearby cell; hair-raising screams come through the wall to lend credence. They threaten him with the same, and worse.
Who is this poor guy, and what has he done to deserve this treatment?
His name is Katurian (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), and he is a writer of children’s stories – grim, violent stories that bear strong resemblance to recent grisly killings of local children. The detectives, Tupolski (Jim Jorgensen) and Ariel (Bradley Foster Smith), charge that Katurian has performed the killings himself. They do their utmost to extract a confession to that effect.
Jim Jorgensen as “Tupolski.” Teresa Castracane Photography.
These grim proceedings take place in an unnamed country that, you think, must surely have a repressive regime and a sadistic dictator at the top.
Or is it a country that wants to protect its children and isn’t particularly scrupulous about how to do it?
In The Pillowman, running through April 2 at the Silver Spring Black Box, you begin, after a while, to see both possibilities.
No argument: detectives Tupolski and Ariel are heavy-handed (and foul-mouthed, too), but they are also, as they inform Katurian, “on the right side – the opposite side from you.”
But Katurian counters with his own ethic: “The duty of the writer is to tell the story.”
Emma Lou Hébert as “Spirit Girl.” Teresa Castracane Photography.
And although he spins some really grisly tales (but didn’t the brothers Grimm do that, too, in their day?), he recounts them in such a gentle, affectionate bedtime-story manner that you start thinking, well, it is awful that the little boy got his toes cut off, but wasn’t it a really good story?
So whom are you going to believe? The writer must be free to create without retribution from the State; but isn’t there a risk that violence in any medium can prompt impressionable people to act out copy-cat violence in real life, and mustn’t society must be protected from that? They’re both right – right?
Actually, The Pillowman is more than a play of ideas, largely because of Katurian’s brother, Michal (James Konicek), who has indeed been arrested and interrogated, but not in quite the way the detectives described.
The two brothers end up in the same cell together and compare their situations. Starting here, the plot takes several decisive, bizarre twists – no, I’m not telling what they are – that unfold against the backdrop of Katurian’s stories being retold and reenacted.
James Konicek as “Michal” and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as “Katurian.” Teresa Castracane Photography.
There are lots of mind games in this play, as the detectives try to get into Katurian’s head. They tell him that what they had told him two minutes ago with fervent assurance wasn’t really the truth – they were just messing with him. The cat-and-mouse game of interrogation is played out to full, chilling effect, but so is resistance, as Katurian endures, stiffens and makes demands of his own.
In the end, Katurian meets the fate that has been repeatedly predicted for him; Michal meets a totally unexpected one; and the play closes with one of Katurian’s stories, The Pillowman of the title, being re-told with a new ending – almost a happy one. And the one thing that Katurian had hoped to salvage from the whole grisly incident – his stories – are rescued at the last by the last person you would expect to help him out.
This is demanding theater, but it’s first-rate. There are only four substantive characters, and the play is three hours long (with one intermission). If it were a running event, it would be, not a marathon – that’s O’Neill – but at least a ten-miler.
Luckily, the actors are outstanding, with the power, crispness and endurance to make the three hours move. Jim Jorgensen and Bradley Foster Smith play the good/bad cop pair to a fare-thee-well, and are a classic contrast in body types. They are explosive and creepy, but also occasionally touching and (trust me here) funny.
Bradley Foster Smith as “Ariel.” Teresa Castracane Photography.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is an engaging, but mentally tough, Katurian: fiercely loyal to his brother, yet ultimately most loyal of all to his calling as a writer. He makes you believe it.
And James Konicek, as Michal, is an adult child: innocent, exuberant, and petulant, even as he describes things that only adults – and depraved ones, at that – could do.
The pace is assured, there are plenty of surprises, and the set and properties are used with imagination and powerful effect. You won’t be nodding off.
By Martin McDonagh; directed by Yury Urnov; set by Paige Hathaway; costumes by Robert Croghan; lighting by Jason Arnold; sound by Justin Schmitz; props designed by Patti Kalil. Forum Theatre at Silver Spring Black Box, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Through April 2; Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm. Running time: 3 hrs (including a 15 min intermission).
Cast: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, James Konicek, Bradley Foster Smith, Jim Jorgensen, Emma Lou Hébert