By Mary Boyle
The British playwright, screenwriter, and director, Martin McDonagh, has a flare for writing black comedies; dark, violent, works that, like a Grimm's fairytale, sometimes seem to have no point but to illustrate the evil in the world. Like an English version of Quentin Tarantino, McDonagh has a strong following of devoted fans of both his plays and his films, and he tends to attract famous names to act in both. His play, The Pillowman, made its world premiere in 2003, and starred David Tennant and Jim Broadbent. When it made its Broadway debut in 2005, Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum were among the cast. Clearly, there is an audience for this type of work, but it takes a unique theatre company to be up to the challenge of a play of this nature. The Constructivists, a relatively new company that was recently named the 2018 Best New Theatre by Milwaukee Magazine, were up to the task, and their production of The Pillowman at the Underground Collaborative in Milwaukee is shocking a whole new generation of audience members.
Katurnia (Rose Grizzell) sits under the light in a concrete block-walled interrogation room in an unnamed Totalitarian State. Menacing Detectives, Tupolski (Jamie Jastrab) and Ariel (Rob Schreiner), seem to be in no hurry to explain to her why she's been hauled in for questioning, but since a file with all of the stories she's written sits on the table in front of her, she has an inkling: Totalitarian States don't like writers. As the play progresses, we learn that Katurnia has written many stories, nearly all of which involve horrific abuse and violence against children; the detectives have discovered three dead children whose deaths are eerily similar to two of Katurian's stories; and, the detectives also have her intellectually disabled brother, Michal (Logan Milway), in custody.
Though I'm no stranger to violence in a play, this one was particularly difficult for me. Grizzel and Milway's acting, in particular, was stellar. The costumes and lighting were spot on. The set was enhanced by the gritty intimacy of the basement theater space that is the Underground Collaborative. The writing is engaging and thought-provoking, with a sustained suspense that is almost uncomfortable and situations that require the viewer to wrestle with topics such as free speech, morality, and more. They hit all the marks of a great production, and yet this level and type of violence is, to me, almost too difficult to bear. I walked out of the theater feeling more disturbed than anything else; I didn't like it, yet I didn't hate it and, because it raises so many questions, I feel compelled to see it again.
Directed by Jaimelyn Gray, who has worked with a number of small, avant garde theatre companies in the Milwaukee and Chicago area and is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Constructivists, The Pillowman is suited to The Constructivists' mission to create "accessible, viscerally-driven live theatre, exposing and exploring the complexity of human nature and the perils it creates." If you want to be entertained by theatre, this may not be your production; but, if you wish to be challenged and pushed out of your comfort zone, this show will do the trick.
The Pillowman runs through November 10th at the Underground Collaborative, located in the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee at 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. Tickets are $15 in advance and are available by calling (414) 858-6874 or online at www.theconstructivists.org/. If seats remain, tickets may be purchased for $18 at the door. The three final performances are Friday, November 8th through Sunday, November 10th at 7:30 p.m.