Theatre Review: “There Are No Happy Endings in Real Life”


Note: This review was posted on the KC Stage review system.

The Pillowman, written by Martin McDonagh, directed by Trevor Belt. Produced by She&Her Productions (Kansas City). First produced 2003. (Seen March 19, 2011.)

She&Her Productions’ performance of The Pillowman is an intense, heart-wrenching roller coaster that left me speechless and emotionally drained by the end of the evening.

The plot is, as their description indicates, about a writer in an unnamed totalitarian state being interrogated about the violent content of his short stories and their similarities to a series of child murders. It delves into the concepts of what art is, and whether a creator is responsible when it goes beyond the story. Is Taxi Driver (and Jodie Foster) at all responsible for John Hinckley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan? Can you really blame Marilyn Manson for the massacre at Columbine high school? Does what Stephen King or Clive Barker write reflect or inspire humanity? The character of Tupolski says at one point, “I think there is a solution, but then I’m clever.” But by the end of the play, the only solution is the quote of my title — that there are no happy endings in real life.

The story has echoes of Of Mice and Men, A Clockwork Orange, and Waiting for Godot, and the dialogue is very precise — almost too precise, as the few times the actors flubbed a line it was a little too obvious as a result. And as with Of Mice and Men and Waiting for Godot, it takes a while for the story to settle in and find its bearing, the characters hard to tell apart and figure out right away. But once I figured out what’s going on, I was reminded of watching the coverage of 9/11 — too gruesome to watch, but too compelling of a story to turn away.

As for the acting, Coleman Crenshaw (as Katurian) started out slow, which made it a harder buy in since he was who we needed buy in from. But once he got going, he did a very good job. Rick Williamson (as Tupolski) and Matt Leonard (as Arial) also got better as the show progressed, but special note needs to go out to Jeremy Frazier as Michal. As the brother of Katurian, who (for reasons pertaining to the plot) is not emotionally an adult even though he’s physically older than Katurian, did an excellent job of playing innocently ‘idiotic’ without turning it into a stereotype or a caricature.

Kudos to the fight choreography and makeup — as a techie, there were only a couple of times in the show where it was obviously fake to me — and that might be partly because I was sitting on the side and not in front. And double kudos to the decision to use a real fire at the end of the show, as it added a sense of realism that gave me shivers. And the scene changes? I don’t want to ruin it, but let’s just say they were some of the best scene changes I’ve ever seen.

I can’t say I enjoyed the piece, any more than I could say I enjoyed watching Shindler’s List. If you want to be entertained, this is not a production you want to go to. But if you want to be awed and shown what theatre truly can be, you have to catch this before it closes.

The Pillowman runs until March 28. For more information, visit the She&Her Productions website.

  • Ian

    I really love The Pillowman. The theater that I used to house manage for performed it during the first season that I worked for them, and I worked that show 2-3 times a week for 8 weeks or so. I only saw the complete show end to end a couple of times, but if you piece together all the partial bits I saw watching from the back of the house in between doing other tasks, I’m certain I’ve seen it well over a dozen times.

    I’m pretty sure that show inspired more walkouts than any other. Some didn’t make it through the first act. They’d leave the house with disgusted looks on their faces. Most would leave at intermission. For those on the fence about staying or not who chose to stay, we had a cruel surprise in store: the play’s most shocking scene, that crucifixion, happened soon after they nervously sat back down for Act 2.

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