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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Plowman

Or: A murderous story of murderous stories

As we enter the tiny space of the Side Projects Theater we are greeted by sinister sounds of electric buzzing, spinning saws, and what sounds to be a lightsaber. We are also greeted by the sight a man hooded man seated at a desk, a faceless figure snatched from the outside world who will probably not be leaving this place upright. This is Katurian (Alex Tey), a writer living in an unnamed totalitarian dictatorship, who, along with his brother Michal (Carl Lindberg), has been arrested by Detectives Tupolski (Joe Ciresi) and Ariel (Geoff Zimmerman) and brought in for questioning.

While the detectives play cat and mouse with their prisoner and Katurian tries to figure out exactly what he’s accused of, it becomes illuminated that several of his stories have provided the inspiration for a series of brutal child murders going on in the city. Now Katurian holds his life, his brothers, and the fate of his stories in his hands and must figure out some way to save all three, fend of torture from the detectives, and bring the truth to light.

Reading the above you might think of the Pillowman as a Ludnumesque story, full of high stakes and shouting matches and the constant threat of imminent violence. And you’d be absolutely right. But it is also a hysterically funny story, almost unbelievably so for a play about police brutality and child murder. Perhaps the best work by Irish playwright Martin Macdonagh, The Pillowman is a masterpiece of humor run through with high tension mystery, and illuminating truths of a life of misery. Sadly Innate Theater Company has largely missed that memo for this, their inaugural production. They keep the tension taught and the pace at a expert speed of slow menace to eye-blinking violence but they gloss over scores of prime points of laughter, the jokes waving to us like castaways in the ocean before they disappear into the past behind us.

Tey and Zimmerman do oft times pause to rescues these lines, the former especially excelling with the sardonic wit of a man in a tight corner. But the rest of the cast need to take time, to savor these jokes, to discover them in the moment and let their dark and whimsical humor land before moving on the the business of torture and death. It’s one thing to scare us and make us cringe, quite another to make us double over with mirth while we’re scared and cringing.

For their first show as company, and for the service of such a gripping play, Innate Theater Company has pulled out all the stops. Their commitment to verisimilitude in the tiny space is admirable, especially during the jump worthy flare ups of violence and the visual example of just how many accouterments are needed to hook electrodes up to someone. Less effective are the luxuries laden on when Katurian breaks from the action to tell us one of his grimmer-than-Grimm stories. The whimsical worlds his acts of kiddie cruelty unfurl from could be fully realized in half the time and half the effort it takes to stage them now. And no, thank you, we do not need a soundtrack of lonesome harpsichords and distant screams as his stories are read out. It’s just gilding on the lilly: in this play the humor and the horror are increased ten fold when you fallow the rule “tell, don’t show”.

For all its ax-edged drive, its convoluted mystery and constantly shifting criminal justice stance, the Pillowman is about the stories that we tell ourselves, and the ones that we cling to and actualize, for better or worse. Whether that narrative be about a little green pig, or a child trapped in a horrible life with no escape, or two brothers facing oblivion in the basement of a government building, stories capture our imagination, inform who we are and push us towards acts angelic and indescribable. To watch Katurian share his pain, his anger, and his genius with us is to see ourselves beating against the current of our own, probably less whimsical hopefully less horrible, lives, hoping to leave a legacy behind before we are bourn away into the dark.

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