Two children have been murdered and a third is missing. The police are questioning Katurian, an unpublished writer of dark fairy tales where young children meet their gruesome ends. To the interrogators, it’s a straightforward case as the crimes committed followed the plot to some of Katurian’s short stories. All they need from him is a confession so they bring in his traumatized elder brother, Michael, as leverage.
In The Sandbox Collective’s staging of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman”, theater audiences are treated to a multimedia reading where we watched the actors through the screen while they performed live on a bare set backstage. There are three screens in front of us. Two large screens simultaneously show scenes at different camera angles. The middle screen is used sparingly, when Katurian shares stories that take you away from the reality of his situation. The reason for this, as shared by director Ed Lacson Jr., is to tell this story as if you’re witnessing it through a CCTV video, which is to say that like CCTV videos, there is an inexactness and unreliableness to this story; that, like CCTV videos, it can manipulate the audience.
It’s an interesting staging that lends itself well to the intense and claustrophobic setting of a police interrogation room. The cameras could have been placed at more strategic angles, but it is a technique that mostly worked. It added to the unnerving quality of the story. It’s almost uncomfortable—as if you’re watching something you’re not supposed to be watching.
While Katurian (Bong Cabrera) and Michael (Jojo Cayabyab) were undercast, the saving grace were the interrogators, Tupolski (Richard Cunanan) and Ariel (Art Acuna). Acuna and Cunanan were on a different level, their performances elevating the piece. Their delivery really allowed the humor and intensity of McDonagh’s writing to shine through and made the source material all the more watchable.
McDonagh’s play is whip-smart, with complex layers that explore the reliability of a story and a storyteller. It presents the complicated relationship between the writer and his writing. Sure, it played to the trope that brilliant writers are damaged ones, but there’s something about Katurian’s protectiveness for his body of work that is grounded in truth. He may die, but his legacy can still live on, and that is a possibility that he’s desperate to see through. It’s a tragic tale, dark and gruesome at times, but very funny, too. It is a gripping story that fascinates from start to finish.