Review: ‘The Pillowman’ at Fresno State doesn’t offer a gentle sleep, but it’s sharp, daring and subversive
The first time we see the title character in Fresno State’s engrossing production of “The Pillowman,” his head hangs low, like a limp doll that has lost some of its stuffing.
I don’t want to give anything else away about the physical appearance of the Pillowman, a violent yet strangely gentle character. Surprises (many of them disturbing) are an important part of playwright Martin McDonagh’s bag of tricks. But I will divulge that I found the initial introduction of the character quite moving. It captures despair and a sort of floppy, desultory surrender to the baser aspects of humanity.
I’m really impressed with this production, both with J. Daniel Herring’s concept and with the top-notch acting. It’s one of the most daring and subversive titles I’ve seen at Fresno State in recent years in terms of its subject matter (horrific violence and despair), philosophical depth (are we the sum of our upbringings?), and, most important, in a generally saucy tone that might seem antithetical to the subject matter but makes perfect sense paired with McDonagh’s work.
I’ll let you parse my interview with Herring to pick up the plot; let’s just say it’s about a writer living in a totalitarian state who gets hauled into a police station. What unfolds is a strange, disturbing narrative that includes the onstage realization of several of the writer’s icky stories.
The show is double cast. The actors in the “Martin” cast (which will be featured in the production’s final performance on Saturday, May 13) are superb. Two of them play policemen: Randall Kohlruss is Tupolski, the “No. 1” of the team. (He is the “good cop,” or so he proclaims.) A powerful Mason Beltran is Ariel, the enforcer. While Tupolski is something of a dandy, the type of self-absorbed guy who struts and fidgets and embellishes, continually aware of his own kineticism, Ariel is a brute. (If Ariel were a bulldozer, Tupolski would be a shiny but cheap Eastern European sports car.)
The object of their attention is the writer, Katurian (played at the performance I attended by Luke Robert Nothstein). There is something rangy and off-putting about this man, like a mole who’d rather pout underground but who can still kick around a lot of dirt when he’s above. Nothstein, a veteran Fresno State performer, gives a riveting performance, the best I’ve ever seen from him, navigating his character’s tremendous amount of stage time in the 140-minute show with a brisk, reserved, indifferent intensity.
Kohlruss, too, is amazing. He is mercurial and sadistic, but also somehow corporate – a cross between Martin Short as Ed Grimley and Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko. Kohlruss, another Fresno-area theater veteran (he’s a featured community member), has made a local career out of playing frantic comic characters. This time, the clowny bits are laced with menace. This performance, too, is perhaps the best I’ve seen from him.
There is a fourth character at the prison: Michal (Tyler James Murphy), Katurian’s mentally disabled brother. As if we don’t have enough striking performances portraying vacant, caustic cruelty, Murphy throws a creepy ambiguity into the mix.
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Sunshine De Castro’s lighting design creates contrasting worlds of harshness and dreaminess, and costume designer Maggie Walker sets the mood even more as Herring alternates between the rigid reality of the police station and the dreamy, Tim Burtonesque fantasy of Katurian’s stories. The three actors in those stories – Mikayla Rockwell, Diego Sosa and Jonathan Disan Perez – fully inhabit their fantastical, freaky roles.
“The Pillowman” is not an easy play to watch at times, but the Fresno State production feels seamless. Herring’s staging is shrewd and memorable. Moments feel stylized yet spontaneous: Michal scooching over extra close to sit by his brother. Ariel offering a surprising gentle touch to a shoulder. Tupolski leaping nimbly over a torture device while telling a bizarre, harrowing, funny story about a train.
I was enthralled. The play floats along like a bad dream that can feel intractable and occasionally agonizing, but not quite enough to make you want to force yourself to wake up.