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The artist as criminal in The Pillowman; The Parent Project says "Phone home"

Children of menand women

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The Pillowman

Manbites Dog Theater
Through April 28

Granted: Katurian, the author character at the center of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, freely plays the toady to a couple of apparatchik goons in some totalitarian country's version of homeland security. Stipulate further: No, he's really not that good a writer. Not when that "black, black gloom" suddenly falls—with all of the subtlety of a plummeting concert grand—upon "the empty, empty, empty forest" in one of his cheerier tales.

For all that, Katurian still evinces a couple of ethical lessons that baffled the other truly mediocre wordsmith we were forced to get to know last week: Seung-Hui Cho, the self-styled assassin of Virginia Tech. Cho's narcissistic wounds apparently ran so deep he actually believed he was writing social criticism with a Glock 9 and a .22 caliber pistol last Monday morning, after his earlier efforts doing so in poetry and playwriting didn't pan out. (For those who can bear it, two of his execrable scripts, Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, have been reprinted on several Web sites.)

Where the surreal Mr. Cho spent the last minutes of his life gunning down the strangers onto whom he was somehow able to divert the blame for his woes, Katurian knows he is uniquely culpable when someone gets inspired enough to start copycatting some of several hundred gruesome stories he has written depicting the murders of children.

Though some have accused McDonagh of total turpitude in his most recent—and, possibly, final—play, at least a few morals seem clear enough in The Pillowman. The writer is responsible for the problems he creates. Ultimately, all those "darkly fashionable" stories have an incredibly limited emotional and creative bandwidth. And a scribe who sows self-pity and cheap nihilism—in stories that aspire to instill nothing more than the end of hope—may find the later reaping, in their impact on society, taking place uncomfortably close to home.

Yes, these lessons are explored in some of the starkest work McDonagh has ever done—which is saying something, given the decidedly ashen humors of A Skull in Connemara and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Indeed, given the playwright's downbeat corpus, it's tempting to speculate on this play's possible identity as a self-critique, if not a self-dismissal, of his earlier work.

For all that, The Pillowman clearly contains some of the best—and certainly the most challenging—writing we've seen on stage all season. Katurian's interrogations at the indelicate hands of policeman Ariel and detective Tupolski crackle with suspense and no small amount of wit. We're intended to admire the brilliant bit of craft by which the playwright extricates himself from the corner he paints himself into at the end of the first act. Only the lack of dimension in McDonagh's brief supporting roles—little more than cardboard cutouts of a psychopathic mother and father, fleetingly referenced—qualify his success here.

In this Manbites Dog Theater production, guest director Kevin Ewert draws nuanced performances from a quartet of accomplished actors. Shark oil permeates the surfaces of Gregor McElvogue's cool, unnerving detective Tupolski, while Jeffrey Scott Detwiler festers convincingly in the role of his demonstrative partner, Ariel. Jay O'Berski first probes the surfaces of mania as their unwilling guest, Katurian, before exploring his character's sometimes petty, sometimes profound ties with Lucius Robinson's admirably reserved Michal.


The Parent Project

both hands theatre company
Through April 28

(Left to right) Byron Jennings II, John Honeycutt, Chaunesti Lyon and Laurie Wolf in The Parent Project. - PHOTO BY LISA C. MILLER, SIMPLY SOUTHERN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Lisa C. Miller, Simply Southern Photography
  • (Left to right) Byron Jennings II, John Honeycutt, Chaunesti Lyon and Laurie Wolf in The Parent Project.

both hands theatre's The Parent Project is one of those shows that really makes you want to call the folks back home afterward, for one of three reasons: to bless them, thoroughly cuss them out, or mix a bunch of different emotions together.

Though at times a bit uneven in its choice of transitions and framing devices for scenes, Tamara Kissane and Cheryl Chamblee's original text remains a considerable achievement. The company's co-founders compiled it from a series of interviews, meetings and collaborations with more than 100 local artists and community members over the past year. Despite these disparate sources, and the broad range of their responses, the work sounds like both hands at its best: a choir—shattered at some points, harmonic at others—of earnest, honest voices that are in conflict at times with the home truths they're trying to tell.

The dozen on-stage actors, skimmed from the cream of regional talent, use birthday parties to consider the genetic, psychological and social legacies they've all inherited from their progenitors.

In the most effective sequence of the evening, Beth Popelka, J. Evarts, Nicole Quenelle and Laurie Siegel worry over lunch about their character's aging parents. The quartet navigates the broken pavement of expectations, desires and inverted relationships—when children have to parent the parents—as they forestall committing to a course of action with assisted living and the lunch menu. The four look at one another—feeling guilty, starving and yet unable to eat.

Considerable food for thought, particularly for adult children contemplating similar transitions with their parents.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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