By Kevin Zimmerman
Early in Variations Theatre Group’s new production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” the lead character, Katurian, talks about being a writer.
“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,” Katurian says to the two police officers interrogating him. “Or is it the only duty?”
However that question gets answered over the next two hours-plus, McDonagh still tells quite the tale.
At turns the play about an author who pens short stories involving children suffering the most violent of demises is disturbing, at times sickening—but also extremely funny.
Set in an unnamed country run as a police state, “The Pillowman” begins with two officers questioning Katurian about some of his stories and their similarities to a couple of recent child murders.
They tell Katurian that his mentally challenged brother Michal is in the next room, and once the police beat a confession out of the two, the brothers will be executed.
“To execute a writer sends a signal,” Tupolski says, though he admits, “I don’t know what that signal is.”
The police, played in a delightfully manic key by Deven Anderson and Paul Terkel, come at the questioning under the guise of good cop, bad cop. Anderson’s Tupolski even points out that indeed he has assumed the role of good cop to Terkel’s bad cop Ariel.
Terkel as bad cop Ariel is a menacing force, quick to explode verbally and physically.
At one point, after some rather gruesome details from the story “The Little Jesus,” are revealed, Ariel expresses his disgust to Katurian.
“Why does there have to be people like you?” Ariel asks.
Apparently it is to tell stories.
Katurian says he does not care if he dies at the hands of the police just as long as his stories survive.
“It’s not about being alive or not,” he says, “it’s about what we leave behind.”
As Katurian, Kirk Gostkowski, who is also the artistic director of the company, delivers what may be his best performance to date.
He subtly balances the fear of not knowing what is going on with the anger he feels at the police’s threats of burning his stories. Gostkowski expertly manages the wide range of emotions Katurian runs through when it comes to his brother, from protector to accuser to ultimately savior-of-a-sort.
Kyle Kirkpatrick also turns in an outstanding performance as mentally challenged Michal.
Kirkpatrick beautifully captures the nuances of a person with brain damage. Too often, an actor playing a special-needs individual slips into a caricature. Not here. Kirkpatrick makes Michal a real person with dreams and fears.
Kudos also to director Greg Cicchino, who keeps things moving along at a perfect pace, and who manages to keep the audience unsure of what is coming next—another horrifying revelation or absurdist moment.
Video director David Rey provides brilliantly crafted projections of Kuturian’s stories that are played on the set’s bare back wall.
But the night belongs to Gostkowski.
He is beaten, threatened and ridiculed throughout the proceedings, but never forgets what is most important—to protect his brother and to ensure the safety of his stories.
If you Go
When: Through Oct. 3
Where: The Chain Theatre, 21-28 45th Road, Long Island City
Cost: $18/adults, $15/LIC residents, seniors and students
Contact: (646) 580-6003
Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimm