The Pillowman

By Martin McDonagh
Directed by Neil Brewer & Katie Graviss

Review by Ben Gierhart

Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Ben Gierhart. All rights reserved.

Why does one create art? Perhaps it is to inspire greatness in others. Perhaps it is to incite provocative thinking and discussion. Perhaps the artist is concerned with legacy, leaving something behind that future generations can look upon and say, “Yes, that person was here. They thought. They felt. They created.” It is this question that serves as the thematic centerpiece to Martin McDonagh’s — arguably the world’s most important living Irish playwright and screenwriter — brilliant play, The Pillowman.

The play begins with a man (Ben Unwin), who we later learn has the strange name Katurian Katurian Katurian, with a bag over his head. The bag is removed, and we learn that he is in a police station in some sort of totalitarian near future, being questioned rather aggressively by officers Tupolski (Katie Graviss) and Ariel (Victoria Reibel). We learn that Katurian is a writer of particularly grisly stories and that the reason for his detainment is that several murders have recently taken place, each depicting the ghastly twists of his stories. The officers also reveal that they have Katurian’s mentally challenged brother Michal (Neil Brewer) in another room and that he has already confessed to the murders. These plot details seem fairly straightforward. One thinks that he or she knows what one is getting into from this point, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Half the journey of this play is riding all the dark twists and turns, so this reviewer will discuss plot no further.

As the play progresses, the audience learns more about Katurian, Michal, and their relationship through both overt narrative and vignettes that bring Katurian’s stories to life. The latter moments are the most surreal and challenging scenes to pull off, but directors Neil Brewer and Katie Graviss mostly succeed, particularly with the most important: “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother” and “The Pillowman.” These two stories serve as the connective tissue between Katurian and Michal as well as the glue that holds the entire play together.

Besides the selection of a stunningly good script, the real triumph of The Alley’s production is the performances. It is difficult to imagine a role better suited than Katurian to Ben Unwin and his talents. His reading of “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother” is perfectly timed and appropriately ominous. It is an indelible moment in a production filled with more than capable actors. Neil Brewer skirts indulgence as Michal, but he avoids it, turning in a nuanced performance that could have easily been the undoing of a lesser actor. Intriguingly, the roles of Tupolski and Ariel are not traditionally portrayed by women. The reason for the change in gender was not readily apparent, but this reviewer is always happy to see gender-blind casting, especially when made with such gifted actors as Graviss and Reibel. Christine O’Hara and Frank Whitaker, portraying various and sundry smaller roles with aplomb, round out the talented cast.

Technically, the production was a little uneven, particularly when it came to scene changes and transitions, but just as often, it featured a directorial partnership that fostered some truly beautiful and frightening moments. It is this reviewer’s hope that this partnership continues to grow and select challenging, beautiful, seldom produced art such as this. Why does one create art? Perhaps it is to create more.

The Pillowman

June 11 – 27, 2015

Tickets $15 ($12 for students / seniors / military)

The Alley Theater
633 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202


Ben [box_light]Ben Gierhart is a local actor, playwright, and director who has worked with several companies in town including The Bard’s Town, Pandora Productions, Savage Rose, and Centerstage. Ben serves on the board and in the acting ensemble for The Bard’s Town Theatre, and he is also a founding member of the Derby City Playwrights, a collective dedicated to creating new and exciting plays in Louisville.[/box_light]