Monday, February 13, 2017

The Pillowman—The Headwaters Theatre—NE Portland

Twisted Tales of Terror

This intense, abstract, horror tale is presented by Life in Arts Productions at the above space, 55 NE Farragut St., through February 25th.  (Note:  although parking does not seem to be an issue, finding the theatre is no easy task, even with electronic devices.)  The play is written by Martin McDonagh and directed by Jamie M. Rea.  For more information, go to their site at

“Fairy Tales can come True…it can Happen to You…” goes the old song but one must remember that the original tales, specifically the Grimm Bros., were designed to frighten children into submission to obey their parents or the bogey man would get them.  So when kids went to sleep at night, they dreamed all right, but Nightmares are dreams, too, you know.  And this tale (or tales) are designed to keep you up at night, not lull you into a peaceful dreamland.  They are a delicious combination of Stephen King, Kafka and George Romero, sprinkled with bits of The Pied Piper, Folklore and, even the Almighty Christ, for flavoring.

Flash forward to the distant Future (perhaps, not too far) to a Totalitarian State (“form of government in which political authority exercises absolute control over all aspects of life and opposition is strongly discouraged”—sound familiar?) where a writer, Katurian (Benjamin Philip), of adult/graphic fairy tales is arrested.  He pleads ignorance to his interrogators, the matter-of-fact, Tupolski (Bobby Bermea) and the brutish, Ariel (Jonah Weston), as to what might have upset the Government.  It seems that the death of three children, all of which died in similar manners to some of his horror stories, have put him on the police radar.

They have also arrested his mentally-challenged, timid brother, Michal (Gary Strong), and has him held in another room, insisting that they are going to torture (approved by the Government—again, sound familiar?) him if Katurian doesn’t confess that they are responsible.  As they try to put together a case, they all participate in relating and, in some cases, acting out the stories (Carter Christianson, Sydney Jordan, Amelia Harris, Adam Goldthwaite and Mandy Khoshnevisan).  But not all is as it seems, either with the prisoners, or the detectives.  It seems that this 1984-ish type of atmosphere they are living under has brought out the “beast” in men in which they all must face their primal fear, in this case, perhaps, as FDR once said, Fear Itself, and the only way out might be meeting up with, The Pillowman!

I cannot go into any more details without giving away aspects of the story you yourself should discover.  But suffice to say, they all have secrets…and secrets within secrets.  It should be obvious that this is not for the faint of heart, OR FOR CHILDREN!  It is a powerful indictment against ruling bodies that do not consider the people they are governing when they make laws.  It also hints strongly that, as in the excellent film, “Network,” there is no real leader or government of a country, as we know it, but only a network of interconnecting secret bodies that rule the world:  A frightening Conspiracy of Silence.

The story(s) are presented simply with little distractions from elaborate set pieces/props, as it really doesn’t need any, as the story and actors are compelling enough to hold your attention.  The play itself is a bit overwritten and repetitious at times, but the basic story(s) and actors are riveting.  Rea has wisely kept it simple and has an outstanding cast to present this haunting piece.  Bermea (also an exceptionally good director) and Weston are powerful as the good/cop, bad/cop combination of authority.  They are a fearsome duo but, like any so-called unbreakable combinations, they do have chinks in their armor and, once exposed, they show their true colors.  Both these actors command your attention when onstage.

Philip, in the lead role, is riveting!  You feel for him as he’s unwillingly thrust into this situation; discover with him the darkness of his stories and their true meanings; and are horrified with him as secrets are exposed.  Certainly he is one of the best performances onstage this Season.  The other amazing performer is Strong, as the child-like brother, with a secret.  I’ve seen him before onstage before, often in comedic roles, and always good, but this is his tour-de-force!  He runs the gamut of emotions from child-like innocence, to smoldering anger, to intense rage and, even at times, an odd sort of wisdom.  Strong has raised the acting bar to the highest level and this performance is up there in the clouds!

I recommend this production but, as I’ve said, it is not for everyone, as it has strong language and very adult situations.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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