Play’s dark humor draws laughs, gasps

by Rebecca Asoulin | 5/26/14 1:36pm

An actor dressed in a fat suit sprinted through a paper wall. With little resistance, the paper tore, sparking laughter in the crowd.

Watching the scene, director Deby Guzman-Buchness ’15, exhaled and let out a “finally.” After a term that included casting, rehearsing and eventually performing three shows, “The Pillowman” had officially closed, and the cast was tearing down the set.

Intricately arranged by set design leader Cristy Altamirano ’15, the Bentley Theater was lined in paper for the production, an allusion to the main character’s profession as a short story writer. Stacks of paper were piled around the stage, and some action occurred silhouetted behind a paper wall.

The play, written by Martin McDonagh, jumps back and forth between two plot lines, an interrogation of the main character, Katurian, played by Ben Edlin ’14, and re-enactments or narrations of his stories. In the interrogation, detectives Tupolski and Ariel, played by Jake Gaba ’16 and Reed Latrowski ’15, question Katurian about why some of these stories bear striking resemblance to a string of child murders.

Colored by dark, self-conscious humor, the play alternatively shocked and amused its audience at the Sunday production.

Staged with a $400 budget from the theater department, “The Pillowman” marked Guzman-Buchness’s directorial debut. Guzman-Buchness said she first read the play in high school and was attracted to its use of misdirection and plays on words.

The intimate nature of the Bentley helped bring audience members into the interrogation room with Katurian. There, Guzman-Buchness said, they were left at “the mercy of actors and the information they’re willing to give.”

Clocking in at over two hours, the play explored a wide range of topics including artistic responsibility and physical abuse, even though most of the action was contained to the interrogation room, Guzman-Buchness said. The protagonist’s attempts to save his work from destruction also raises questions about ownership for intellectual property and personal identity, she said.

“It talks about what we leave behind and legacy, and it talks about itchy arses,” Guzman-Buchness said. “Behind this play there are so many doors to open, and that’s what is so powerful about it.”

Gaba said he enjoyed how the show challenges what is appropriate, and he said that retelling Katurian’s stories within the play provided for great storytelling moments. A favorite of these stories was “The Three Gibbet Crossroads,” about a man who wakes up in an iron gibbet and realizes that he is being punished for a horrible crime that he cannot remember, Gaba said.

“The play is outrageous,” he said. “It’s all the stuff you can’t say rolled up into one little disturbing play.”

Edlin said he “kind of sprinted” to the show’s auditions, describing himself as a huge fan of McDonagh’s work and its “dark, crazy sense of humor.”

“The first line of the play just throws you right into it and doesn’t let you go,” Edlin said.

Edlin said the most difficult scene for him was an interaction he had with his character’s brother, Michal, played by Michael Parets ’14, in the middle of the play. Edlin’s character was onstage for much of the play, and this scene in particular demanded him to enter a dark emotional place. His character also underwent an emotional arc that changed multiple times within the scene, he said.

“The play gives you the opportunity to walk out from the Green into this theater and get taken into a dark cellar of interaction and human emotion that is really interesting because it marries the cruelty and the comedy,” Edlin said.

Altamirano said that the play had the “strongest standalone script” of any production she has participated in at Dartmouth. Though she struggled to find enough paper to cover the whole stage, she was ultimately happy with the play’s set design.

“The paper medium is intended to harken to the idea that this is his life’s work, this is everything to him,” Altamirano said. “Also this whole world really lives on paper, and I wanted to bring that onto the stage.”

Lighting design director Kellie MacPhee ’14 said the play’s length and intensity made it especially challenging to stage. She enjoyed creating distinct lighting for the more realistic or fantastic portions of the play, she said.

Guzman-Buchness said she was excited by how the three different audiences experienced the play. From night to night, attendees’ laughter and responses changed, she said.

At one point, Katurian asks his interrogators, “So where do we go from here on in?” — a question that audience members might also have asked themselves about the play’s direction. Bouncing between horror and humor, interviewed audience members said that they enjoyed the mix.

Kevin Guh ’16 said he attended the play after hearing about it from friends and theater professor James Rice. Guh, who is currently enrolled in Rice’s “Speaking Voice for the Stage” class, said he appreciated how hard the actors worked to bring their characters to life.

Guh said he was especially impressed by Parets’s use of a voweling technique to create his character.

Lily Brown ’15 said she attended the show after her playwriting professor, theater professor Joseph Sutton, recommended it.

Brown said one of her favorite moments was when Katurian’s brother chastised him for writing such gruesome stories. One of his stories, titled “The Pillowman” like the play, casts a man who convinces children to kill themselves before adulthoodas the tale’s hero.

“It was the darkest play I have ever seen,” Brown said. “But it was also hilarious because it was self-consciously dark.”

The article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction appended (May 27, 2014):

The initial version of this article mischaracterized the protagonist's story entitled "The Pillowman." It has been revised to reflect the plot of the story.