Eugene Weekly : Theater : 10.4.07

The Lives of Others
Narrative hell — and deliverance — at the Leebrick

Go see this play.

More complex thoughts follow, but first: Go see this play.

In Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a teacher forces a 7th grade boy to read Shakespeare while his classmates attend religious instruction. The boy comes to believe that Shakespeare writes about revenge and bloody war. The teacher, upset, tells him he has misunderstood Shakespeare entirely. Shakespeare’s plays, she claims, uncover the eternal forces of love and redemption.

Detectives Tupolski (Michael Walker) and Ariel (Mike Hawkins) interrogate Katurian (Marco Ycaza)

Thus to The Pillowman, the 2003 play by Martin McDonagh that could be ripped from our headlines. As the play hopped from New York to Chicago to Portland to Eugene, we learned of torture at the hands of our government, of warrantless wiretapping, of the power of an executive branch that brooks no oversight from a cowed judiciary. Not to exempt the judiciary: A few weeks ago, news broke that an assistant U.S. attorney from Florida was arrested in a sex sting in Michigan; he had set up an arrangement to meet — and rape — a 5-year-old.

So man is wolf to man (or girl); that’s nothing new. But in Pillowman, Irish playwright McDonagh makes deep use of Western narratives about freedom, artistic control and human sacrifice to structure a tale of tales, an involved and complex ever-doubling narrative that leads its audience through terrible darkness to a gloomy, hard-won redemption. And the Lord Leebrick Theatre does its damnedest to present this demanding piece with intelligence and clarity. Though that necessary clarity fails at various moments, mostly due to the weakness of one of the lead actors, the script’s propulsive nature combines with some other fine performances to stun, horrify and fascinate every minute of the long show.

I should also make clear that it’s hugely smart and funny — agonizingly funny, dark comedy funny, treacherously funny. On the Leebrick’s website and on the cover of the playbill, the theater warns that Pillowman “contains scenes and language that may offend” and that it’s “not suitable for children.” True: McDonagh shockingly combines the tropes of childhood stories — ponies, candy, loving parents, toy trucks — with unspeakable violence and degradation. After the length and claustrophobic violence of the first act, some people left at intermission. I’d advise people to have a drink at the break, maybe, but not to leave; the emotional commitment pays off.

To avoid spoilers, there’s little plot I can recount (I read the script in advance, and there were times I regretted that layer of protection). The situation concerns the plight of Katurian (Marco Ycaza), a writer in custody of two detectives, Tupolski (Michael Walker, last seen at the VLT as the titular character in Fortinbras) and Ariel (Mike Hawkins, last seen at the VLT as the hilarious Geoffrey in The Sisters Rosensweig). Basically, the plot revolves around Katurian’s short stories and their deadly resonances in the world. There are other characters, most notably Michal (Ian Armstrong). And there’s a set that combines simplicity and flexibility along with a sound design that perfectly fits the play.

Walker gives a superb performance as Tupolski. His upper Midwest accent works perfectly with his manner to lull the audience (and Katurian) into a sense of complacency. Though Walker was good in the relentlessly mediocre Fortinbras and his part in Picasso at the Lapin Agile showed off his comedic ability, this performance rises far above both. During Walker’s masterful turn in the second act, Tupolski puffs up to tell his own self-aggrandizing story, complete with a brutally racist caricature that elicits outraged snorts of laughter in the audience.

As Michal, Katurian’s brain-damaged brother, Armstrong brilliantly captures the pacing, tone, body language and rhythm of an adult-sized child who shows flashes of malicious insight and hides vital information (among other things) from his brother. And Hawkins performs Ariel, a threatening thug of a man for whose deep-seated compassion Katurian eventually begs, with skill.

But as Katurian, Ycaza can’t keep up. To be fair, the part is massive, its demands huge and its pacing precise; he gets about 70 percent of it. Ycaza speaks too quickly at times when Katurian should measure his words (specifically in the moments when he recounts his stories), and he’s too American-boy whiny while not showing an appropriate amount of fear. This might come from casting: Ycaza doesn’t seem old enough to play Katurian, who has written more than 400 short stories and cared for his brother for years. But the power of McDonagh’s writing overwhelms this kind of challenge.

This play weaves questions about the responsibility and morality of art and of those who commit violence in the name of pursuing justice (Ariel repeats, “Two wrongs don’t make a right!” as he drags Katurian toward the electrodes); the play speaks of the consequences when deluded humans think they can’t make better choices. But does Michal get his wish — does this story have a happy ending? Is this piece about revenge, control and hate, or the possibility of redemption? To figure that out, you should go to — and stay at — this astonishing play.

The Pillowman runs through Oct. 20 at the Lord Leebrick Theatre. For tix, go to www.lordleebrick.comor call 465-1506.