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Theater Review: The Pillowman

Kimberly Demarse and Steven R. O’Brien in The Pillowman. Photo by Brian Allman.

Despite the popularity of horror movies in the modern cinematic landscape, horror plays are far and few between. Unlike films, horror plays (and musicals! Evil Dead, anyone?) are live, immediate, and communal. Though these unique attributes can be advantages (interactive horror shows and haunted houses both capitalize on these qualities), more often than not, they present a distinct challenge. Additionally, staged horror plays are limited in their capacity for special effects, location changes, and action sequences, relying on a greater willful suspension of disbelief from their audiences. However, these distinct challenges, and advantages, make horror theater gleefully satisfying if and when it is successfully executed.

This spring, the newly formed Ektelo Theatre Group makes its debut with a production of a more well-known horror play, The Pillowman. Regarded as one of the best plays of the 21st century, The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is a thoroughly disturbing and well-decorated script, having won a myriad of awards (including an Olivier Award for Best New Play and a Tony nomination for best play) since its premiere in 2003. This production, directed by Brian Allman (Director of Education & Community Engagement at the Geffen Playhouse), runs just about three hours, including one 15-minute intermission, and is recommended for audiences 16+ due to the graphic nature of its content. 

Daniel McCann and Steven R. O’Brien in The Pillowman. Photo by Brian Allman.

Set in a not-so-distant dystopian police state, The Pillowman follows Katurian (Steven R. O’Brien), a fiction writer who has been brought in for questioning by two detectives, Tupolski and Ariel (Daniel T. McCann and Paul Ian Stanley, respectively), regarding a series of violent child murders that bear an uncanny resemblance to the disturbing content of his short stories. Over the course of a torturous interrogation, Katurian is forced through a brutal process of self-reflection–-from the content of his writing to his complex and storied history with his mentally disabled sister, Michal (Kimberly Demarse), who has also been detained in connection to the mysterious murders. 

Despite the lengthy run time, the show is thoroughly engaging from lights up to lights down. The script itself is viscerally grotesque, naturally evoking a macabre curiosity. Still, the ensemble and creative team deserve much credit here, as the plot unfolds over a series of long monologues, stories and prolonged scenes of back-and-forth dialogue. Though the rhythm of the piece occasionally falters with moments of seemingly unintended uncertainty, the actors are thoroughly watchable, bringing energy, urgency, and momentum to every scene. Kimberly Demarse steals the show as Michal. Full of child-like wonder, Demarse carefully toes the line between innocence and trauma, rooting herself in curiosity, fascination, and idolatry. 

Steven R. O’Brien and Kimberly Demarse in The Pillowman. Photo by Brian Allman.

On two occasions, the production turns to film and projection, both instances illustrating horrific, though long-winded, stories by Katurian. The short films created to depict these stories are comprised of AI-generated images and clips, eerie and distorted in a manner that suggests drug-induced hallucinations. Though the shorts are unnerving, capitalizing on uncanny valley and cognitive dissonance, I ultimately found them distracting.

Perhaps these films are meant to underscore the larger thematic conversation at play: the relationship between art, artist, and the freedom of expression. Still, I find this analysis undercut through the earnest use of artificial intelligence, which is still a hotbed of debate by artists whose original work has informed this advancement, and whose original work may become irrelevant because of it. Commentary aside, these films ultimately evade the truly grotesque and truly human nature of Katurian’s writing, and I would have been more interested and satisfied through live interpretation (movement, puppets, what have you).

Though the play is strongly character-driven, design elements do much to enhance the tone and ambience throughout. The play is physically divided in two locations, an interrogation room and a holding cell, both dingy and worn, bearing remnants of past brutality. Chekov’s gun remains unfired, and the most interesting props on stage (bloodied chains and a clipboard) are never used. The open concept design affords the actors maximum space for performance while eradicating tedious scene changes, a critical asset to a production reliant on building and sustaining tension.

L-R (seated) Steven R. O’Brien and Daniel McCann and Paul Ian Stanley (standing) in The Pillowman. Photo by Brian Allman.

Ultimately, Ektelo Theatre Group has made a triumphant debut onto LA’s independent theater scene. The Pillowman will entertain veteran and amateur theatergoers alike, combining expert storytelling and energetic performance with that grotesque morbidity that has fascinated human beings since the dawn of time. Without post-production effects or CGI, The Pillowman somehow achieves a kind of stick-with-em horror that lingers long into the night and will keep you awake listening for whimpers on the other side of the wall.

The Pillowman runs through 14th at The Broadwater (MainStage), 1078 Lillian Way. Showtimes are 8:00pm Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 3:00 pm Sundays. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased here.

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Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner is a Los Angeles based actress and writer. Her training includes Loyola Marymount University (B.A.), Academy of Dramatic Art - University of Zagreb, and Michael Tschechow Studio Berlin.

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