Well-acted ‘Pillowman’ could give you nightmares

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

Know Theatre’s latest offering might just keep you up at night.

When director Bernie Sheredy took on The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, he knew he was going to face some challenges. It takes a brave company, and director, to present a play with the level of difficulty this show presents.

Just over 10 years old, this 2004 Olivier Award for Best New Play lacks the pop culture recognition of some of the other works  to be seen in Binghamton. The theater is kept cool so that the furnace doesn’t drown out the actors in such an intimate setting, but in this case, the temperature also helps keep the audience sharp.

Don’t get me wrong. I like being easily entertained as much as the next gal, but a softening brain needs a workout from time to time. The Pillowman does this.

There are several elements at work here, but ultimately, The Pillowman is two acts of humor so dark that, while you will want to laugh, you may scold yourself for doing so. The play certainly provides an outlet for the draining of any ill humours you may carry around, especially if you ever did something you were ashamed of. After watching this, you will feel pretty good about yourself.

You’ll wonder how our antihero, Katurian, an author in custody in a totalitarian state, could ever have come up with his stuff, writings that have made him a suspect in crimes (two murders and one disappearance) against local children.

This frightened, confused prisoner, played by the talented Zac Chastain, is forced to recount the plots or read actual passages of the short stories that have made him a person of interest in these crimes. At last Friday’s opening night performance (Feb. 13),  I kept thinking that he was a modern-day Grimm brother, a purveyor of grisly tales, complete with abrupt endings, but sadly no moral to any of them in what feels like a soulless society.

Katurian’s writing skill, or lack thereof, is pointed out to him by the two detectives who menace and torture him, sometimes with just a look. They are played brilliantly by Mike Arcesi (Tupolski) and Chris Nickerson (Ariel), both familiar faces in the regional theater scene.

While everyone here is stellar, the stand-out for me is Josh Sedelmeyer as Katurian’s mentally challenged brother, a character reminiscent of Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Sedelmeyer’s portrayal of Michal is believable, disturbing and poignant.

Cast members, aside from the four actors with speaking parts, portray family members from Katurian’s childhood memories and the characters they inhabit in his stories. Lynette Daniels and Scott Fisher as the parents and Ryan Verity and Olivia Coletti, billed only as boy and girl, convey much with facial expressions and blocking. Know Artistic Director Tim Gleason also appears in the silent cast.

Believably reacting is, I am told, hard, or harder, than acting, and everyone here has a chance to do this. Watch Chastain when Arcesi’s character describes a story of his own. Casting in this show is perfect.

And definitely keep your eye on 8-year-old Coletti. Kudos to her parents for whatever it took to get them to allow her to be in this show, which is not kid-friendly. She is amazing and was praised by director Sheredy, who recognized the difficulty inherent in casting someone so young in a part as dark as hers proves to be.

One of the beautiful things about Know is that Tim Gleason and his rotating ensemble of fine actors never disappoint audiences looking for works with something to say, even if it takes some reflection to decide exactly what that is. It’s OK to flex your brain cells while being entertained. A lot of this show will appeal to those who enjoy avant garde theater and just can’t see it much closer than off-Broadway. According to Sheredy, this show would benefit from a larger stage than is available at the Know, but the tradeoff is the company itself and its contributing talent, including the people behind the scenes.

IF YOU GO: The Pillowman runs through March 1 at the Know Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays.  “Pay what you can” night is this Thursday (Feb. 19). Information:  knowtheatre.org ; tickets: binghamtoncitystage@gmail.com or 724-4341.

 

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