A dark dream that demands your attention. AT the MATCH through March 23rd.

By: Mar. 10, 2024
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Once upon a time, there was a profane play that shook the lands of London and Broadway with its daring take on creativity, childhood fairy tales, and disturbing material. Like all good prophetic works, it was rough, ragged, and made people uneasy. A little over twenty years later, a beautiful woman and her charismatic husband decided to produce it for their company called THE DIRT DOGS. At almost three hours, it seemed as daring a production as their last major efforts: AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY and CLEYBOURNE PARK. But somehow, they made the play work, and the cast and crew put their own stamp on all of it. Audiences should be both nervous and thrilled to see it at the MATCH through March 23rd. I don’t think of THE PILLOWMAN as having a happy ending, but I am quite certain this review will. THE DIRT DOGS continue to fascinate me and bring something unique to Houston. 

THE PILLOWMAN was a play developed by Martin McDonagh over eight years in England, and it finally debuted in 2003. It went on to win several Olivier awards, made it to Broadway, and won quite a few Tonys. It’s about a writer of fairy tales who ends up in police custody after several child murders seem to be inspired by his writing. His brother is being held in a cell nearby, and the question hovers over the play: are either of their lives worth saving, and should the author’s work survive? The fairy tales are impossibly grim (pun intended), and so are the dilemmas presented by THE PILLOWMAN. It’s an impressive mix of comedy, shocking elements, and disturbing ideas. 

I am not sure that THE PILLOWMAN will be for all tastes because the subject material is rough. The language is impossibly coarse, with f-bombs peppering every sentence to a point where you are sure they comprise half the script. The icky nature of children being murdered is hard to shake, especially when one has overtones that feel sacrilegious. You almost have to convince yourself that this is simply a pitch-black fairy tale and back up and look at the ideas that are being expressed so well. Are art and stories subversive? Can their mere presence corrupt innocence? Is an author responsible for how others react to his art? Can a good story make up for a bad act? There were times when the audience was laughing, and I was horrified. But that is the fabulous power of what THE PILLOWMAN has to offer. 

Malinda L. Beckham has always been a master of directing testosterone-fueled plays where men fight and abuse each other. She and her cast bravely take on Martin McDonagh’s script and make wise decisions. The pace is breakneck, never allowing the viewer to wallow much in the muck. She brings out the black comedy and never seems to fear that aspect. The fairy tales are dreamy, and their sense of being bedtime stories unfolding before us is wonderful. A solid set suddenly becomes transparent, and we see these little nuggets behind blurry scrims that make them a lucid dream. Nothing about this show is easy to pull off, and yet Beckham has managed to showcase everything in a way that works. 

Cory Sinclair heads up the cast as the writer named Katurian K. Katurian. He is a slight man, wearing glasses, and we realize stories are his only love and source of strength while being incarcerated. We believe in his struggle, and Sinclair displays a wonderful dual presence of cowering when interrogated and fiercely confident when telling a great yarn. He is impossibly small and then grows fifty feet tall inside a single passage.  William Giffen and Kyle Clark are two policemen who admit to falling into the category of “good cop/bad cop” far too easily. There is something dangerously sexy about them, even though they both embrace a toxic masculinity and sadistic tactics. The two create a masterful staccato rhythm in the dialogue. Curtis Barber plays the brother, who is fragile mentally but has a hulking presence like Lennie from OF MICE AND MEN. He is such a sweet soul, but we fear his physicality. He is the brawn, and the actor also creates a surprising depth that is heartbreaking. Melissa J. Marek, Jeffrey Merriman, and Morgan Hughs play all of the characters in the fairy tales. They come off as if they are in a Tim Burton film and give their characters a sense of the fantastical that is off-kilter with the rest of the grounded cast. They go broad to contrast with the reality on the other side of the screen. 

The technical aspects of this production are sublime. Cory Sinclair proves to be more than just a wonderful actor; he has also composed all of the music that constantly underscores the evening. His work with the sonic landscape is a key element to the proceedings, and I would kill for a copy of his soundtrack. It’s industrial but also has a soft and dreamy presence that elevates everything. John Baker’s lights are gorgeous and set the mood all too well. Santiago Sepeda’s set is wild. It feels all concrete and steel at first but then turns into a gossamer screen to frame the dreamy parts. Samantha Hyman’s costumes are also wonderfully on point, creating a dystopian world that contrasts with the magic. 

If you’re adventurous enough, this is a dark gem that is a must-see. Even if you have witnessed it before, THE DIRT DOGS are putting their own spin on this work. They remain one of Houston’s most interesting and compelling companies. At a time when the major players are all being far too safe, they remind us with THE PILLOWMAN that the stage doesn’t always have to be a “safe space.” I am thankful they are here to tell stories that rough you up, make you think, and get you… a little dirty. 

THE PILLOWMAN runs at the MATCH complex through March 23rd. There is a parking garage near the structure and plenty of restaurants within walking distance. The show runs two hours and forty minutes, and you have to factor in two ten-minute intermissions.