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BWW Review: Forum Theatre's Chilling THE PILLOWMAN

When was the last time you had a truly suspenseful evening at the theatre? Not suspenseful in a "whodunit" sort of way. Suspenseful in that the play kept you guessing and you never knew what would come next. This is exactly what you experience in Forum Theatre's chilling production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman.

Let's be clear, this play is not for everyone. Those who know McDonagh know that his work usually features dark humor, dreary situations and characters with a penchant for excessive foul language and violence. The Pillowman is no exception. However, while in some of his plays, specifically the brilliant Lieutenant of Inishmore, all those attributes are used to convey a message, with The Pillowman what we're left with is a murky resolution.

That's not to take away from Forum's production which is exceptionally well-acted by a stellar cast and features a chilling production design. The problem is that McDonagh's script meanders with the first act. By the second act, McDonagh has become succinct allowing the humor to surface. That leads to McDonagh's other major issue, the subject matter.

The Pillowman's plot revolves around a writer named Katurian (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) living in a totalitarian state who finds himself in jail. Unaware of why he's being detained, Detectives Tupolski (Jim Jorgensen) and Ariel (Bradley Foster Smith) reveal that several children have recently been murdered in a fashion similar to characters in his stories.

McDonagh is not bashful in hiding the disturbing nature of Katurian's stories or the gruesome deaths of the children. It's just that these details become so explicit, so heavy, that they tend to puncture the play's humor. What we're left to ponder is why we're watching this dismal situation.

What keeps us intrigued are some solid performances led by Ebrahimzadeh, who anchors the production. He gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Katurian, effortlessly channeling the character's various layers. There's the passionate storyteller, devoted brother and street-smart prisoner all of which we see in his relationships with each of the other characters.

The strongest connection is between Katurian and his developmentally disabled brother Michal (James Konicek). The brotherly bond is expertly developed with skill by Konicek. His Michal is equal parts charming, naïve, cunning and unhinged, yet we can't help but feel for his character.

Much of dark comedy we come to expect from McDonagh is dispatched to Tupolski and Ariel, perfected by Jorgensen and Smith. Each cop has his idiosyncrasies, which Smith in particular, uses to great effect. He's able to channel Ariel's life goals and repressed rage to give a performance that is satirically funny. Fans of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, will find traces of that humor in The Pillowman.

Jorgenson's Tupolski is the real wild card with a performance that is wickedly deranged. Equally, if not more, twisted then Ariel, Jorgenson always leaves us guessing about his character's next move. It's that suspense which, despite the play's flaws, keeps us hooked.

The situation is made all the more intense by a terrifically eerie production design. Forum's black box theatre has been turned into one giant detention room courtesy of Set Designer Paige Hathaway. In the center of the room is a small cell that allows the audience to feel as if they're apart of Ariel and Tupolski's inquisition. The cold, drab cinderblock cell walls conjure up Soviet style construction and Jason Arnold's masterful lighting design and Justin Schmitz thrilling sound design enhance the feel of living under a dictatorship.

Schmitz has anthems from former Soviet bloc countries greet patrons as they enter. It's a nice, cheeky touch. Once the play begins, he creates a haunting, foreboding feeling that places the audience inside the jail. Arnold's best work though is when Katurian's stories are projected inside his cell. The lighting design quickly turns a childlike dream sequence into a nightmare by having the puppet's shadows grow increasingly menacing.

Director Yury Urnov's approach has the cast utilize the whole theatre giving the production a fluidity that mostly succeeds. Only in the first scene could the blocking be sharper and the action crisper. Aside from this one moment, The Pillowman is an innovative production in its use of space, lighting and sound design.

A major pet peeve in any performance, be it play, musical, opera etc., is predictability. There's no use telling the story if the audience can see the conflict and resolution one act or one hour before it actually happens. With The Pillowman, there's none of that. Forum's chilling production will certainly keep you in suspense.

Runtime is Two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

Warning: The Pillowman features adult language, graphic situations and violence.

The Pillowman at Forum Theatre - 8641 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD 20910 - runs thru April 2. For tickets and more information please click here.


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From This Author Benjamin Tomchik