— Photo by Michael Sider
That Martin McDonagh’s brand of wicked black Irish comedy appeals to a younger demographic has been vividly illustrated over the past little while in Vancouver, where three McDonaghs were playing last week (two of them productions of The Pillowman), all by companies essentially of the under-30 variety. The Wild Geese Equity Co-op’s The Pillowman at Jericho Arts Centre features a few veteran actors in secondary roles (Mike Wasko, Bonnie Panych, Dave Campbell). But the stars of this show are the kids: Aaron Hursh, Ryan Beil, Ashley O’Connell, plus a real kid, Jeanna Haddow. Under the handy direction of not much older Stephen Drover, this group navigates McDonagh’s disturbing violence quite comfortably. Where they are less successful is in clarifying McDonagh’s somewhat confused theme involving the responsibility of the artist for actions that may be taken in the name of, or in imitation of his art, and in the art of storytelling itself that lies at the heart of this play.
In an unspecified society a short story writer named Katurian (Hursh) is being interrogated by a couple of sadistic, violent cops (Wasko and O’Connell). At first it looks like we’re in a totalitarian state where Katurian’s writings alone are grounds for his violent incarceration. But it emerges that a couple of children have been murdered and Katurian is a suspect because the conditions of their deaths closely resemble the specifics of some of his stories, many of which concern gothic violence against children. Turns out that Katurian’s own life has been shaped by his parents’ horrible violence against his “retarded” brother, Michael (Beil), who is also in the prison. A third child (Haddow) will also turn up murdered according to the modus operandi of one of Katurian’s most horribly graphic tales.
The play asks some interesting questions about the relationship of art to life and the power of story, but the production doesn’t clarify in the end what McDonagh is trying to say—especially in regard to the violence and self-justifying stories used by Fascist societies. Hursh, an attractive and sometimes powerful young actor new to Vancouver, carries much of the play as Katurian. He’s very good, especially in one terrific scene with Michael, where the brilliant Ryan Beil walks a fine line between totally creepy and hilarious. But Katurian spends a lot of time telling his stories; and as nasty as they are, and effectively as Drover stages some of them (upstage behind a scrim), they all begin to sound a little flat after a while, coming off the tongue of an actor with flat Canadian diction and rhythms. I longed for the Irish or even English sing-song inflections that have helped make McDonagh’s other plays and his film In Bruges so listenable. In that respect I found the slight lilt of O’Connell, a native Irishman, just the ticket. He also handles his sarcastic cop role with aplomb.
This is a provocative, entertaining and well executed show but it doesn’t convince me that The Pillowman is McDonagh’s best or most profound work.