2009-11-18 / Features

‘The Pillowman’ Is World Class Theater From APAC

BY GEORGINA YOUNG-ELLIS

Avery Clark as Katurian is interrogated by Tupolski played by Seth Duerr. Avery Clark as Katurian is interrogated by Tupolski played by Seth Duerr. One of the benefits of being a theater company with excellent leadership, a strong artistic vision and a sterling reputation is that you attract some of the finest actors in the city, even though you may be operating in one of the “outer” boroughs. This is the magical synergy, which makes Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) such a wonder. Their production of “The Pillowman”, written by Martin McDonagh and directed by Tom Wojtunik, which opened November 5, is world-class theater with some of the best acting I’ve seen in any stage production in any of the five boroughs.

“The Pillowman” is a dark play, and it is disturbing. However, the comedy inherent in the dialogue and so perfectly and subtly executed by the actors, helps us not to get too serious about the murder of young children–admittedly a difficult feat to accomplish. Of course, this show is not for children (anyone under 14 will not be admitted), but even I, who am sensitive to the subject of child abuse in any form, found myself bringing away from the experience only the exultation of having witnessed a great work of art, plus the desire to discuss what I saw with my companions that evening, rather than any feeling of disconcertedness from the subject matter. I can guess that the laughter of the other theatergoers throughout the play meant that this feeling was shared.

Wojtunik summed up the essence of the play: “In ‘The Pillowman’, a writer is held responsible for real life events that too closely resemble events in his stories, raising the question: What, if any responsibility does an artist have to his or her community?” This is as much as can be safely revealed going in, because it is important not to reveal this show’s secrets. The plot twists are so surprising that one would not want them spoiled. Staying instead with what makes this show so satisfying, besides the acting, I would start with the set, designed by Stephen K. Dobay. It is stark, upon first inspection, yet it is beautiful in its simplicity and symmetry: the grays, greens and blues invoking an interrogation room in a police station. This set also has surprises for the audience, ingeniously hidden until needed.

The play weaves in and out of the interrogation. Seth Duerr as Tupolski, the “good” cop, utilizes the kind of sarcastic wit and deliberate speech that make us feel that even though both his victims and colleagues may think they are dealing with someone intelligent and rational, his methods are of the most insidious and frightening kind. The “bad” cop, Ariel, played by Richard D. Busser, uses body language exquisitely to express what words alone cannot. He is relentlessly menacing, but his body tells us there is more…something he is hiding. The Writer, Katurian, played by Avery Clark, is gentle innocence embodied, at least initially. We like him immediately and fear for him as events unfold. The actor moves effortlessly through a stream of emotions, from delight to agony. The Mother and Father, Karen Stanion and Justin Herfel, and the Boy and Girl, Anthony Pierini and Jordon Bloom, have odd scenes throughout the play which are portrayed with perfect bizarre eeriness. And finally Michal, Katurian’s slow-witted brother, played by Nathan Brisby, is at once tragic, terrifying and extremely funny, depending on the moment.

The story is a creepy, modern Grimm’s fairy tale set in a place that very much resembles the here and now but is really a totalitarian society with a skewed system of justice. My only argument with the piece, and it is one I would have with the writer rather than the production staff, is that I had some trouble suspending disbelief at the idea of this society not completely unlike our own, but where the police also function as judge and jury. I can only think that the writer was borrowing from Kafka for this aspect of the play, especially since a joke is made referring to Katurian’s stories being “esque” though he can’t think of which “esque” exactly. I also thought of O. Henry and as mentioned, Grimm. The telling of these stories throughout the play was part of the fun and the terror of it. But if I were to want anything changed about the production, I might have changed the few British references and some of the language to reflect the American speech of the actors and to more easily allow the American audience to identify. Perhaps the director did not want to take liberties with the script. I can appreciate that. After all, the 2005 Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards.

I congratulate Wojtunik, who is also APAC artistic director, and Taryn Drongowski, the executive director, for having the courage to take on a daring piece like this in Astoria, where the audience may tend a little towards the traditional. But I think anyone who is willing to let themselves be challenged, and anyone who truly appreciates excellent production values, including the flawless costuming by Emily Morgan DeAngelis, the haunting original music by Ryan Homsey and the clever stage lighting designed by Driscoll Otto, and of course, as mentioned, the outstanding acting, will be mesmerized by this show.

APAC, housed at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church at Crescent Street and 30th Road, is about to celebrate ten years of producing theater in Astoria, and so they’ve earned the privilege of stepping out on a limb. To reserve tickets for “The Pillowman”, which can be seen through November 21, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m., go to www.apacny.org or call 212-352- 3101. One last note: the play is long, running more than two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15- minute intermission, so utilize the snack bar and the bathrooms. Otherwise, time flies by. I promise you won’t even notice how long “The Pillowman” really runs.

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