When The Pillowman opened in 2005 on Broadway, it was the dark horse that left viewers stunned and compelled. "Comedies don't come any blacker," wrote New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley. And just as Martin McDonagh's award-winning play intrigued the theater circuit, it captured the imagination of someone closer to (our) home.
"I saw The Pillowman on Broadway — it was a birthday present — and I just fell in love with the play," says Max Ferguson, a Colorado Springs native and Springs Ensemble Theatre member. He loved it so much, in fact, that he's decided to direct his own production of it to close SET's third season.
The story follows Katurian Katurian, a fiction writer being held for questioning in an unnamed police state because elements of his short stories mirror what's happened in a string of recent child murders. His brother, Michal, is also brought in for questioning, and both their lives, as well as the integrity of Katurian's stories, rest with the decision of two detectives. Intertwined are re-tellings of Katurian's short stories, which uncover details about his past, while also making unclear "what really happened."
"It has this wonderful conflict between the sort of horrible crime committed and the sort of horror imagery in the stories that Katurian writes," says Ferguson, "that contrasts with this language that is hysterically funny, but also this big warm heart at the middle of the thing."
Though the story is outlined with a grisly darkness, it is a comedy, and a sort of psychological journey that makes one question the liminal space between fiction and reality — "like one big fable, and fables within that fable," says Ferguson. "Just as you think you've got it figured out, it unfolds another layer, and you realize you didn't have all the information."
Though Ferguson was inspired by the Broadway version, bringing The Pillowman to life here was an entirely different ballgame, especially without a big budget and a huge theater. "I wanted to do something more technically involved at SET," he says, "something with more production value, and I was interested in figuring out how to do that in such a small space."
Creativity was crucial in helping create a staged "reality" that is, ultimately, a window into the main character's mind. "I like the idea of trying to really build for the audience a sense of how imaginative Katurian really is, relative to the world in which he lives," says Ferguson.
He enlisted the help of local artists to help bring the story to the stage: Graphic novel artist Langdon Foss made ink drawing projections, filmmaker Oscar Robinson shot a film segment, and Balinese shadow puppets were created by SET member Jillmarie Peterson. Artist Phil Lear designed the play poster.
"It's definitely been an ensemble production from top to bottom," says Ferguson.
Be advised, though, that The Pillowman is a play intended for mature audiences, even if, as Ferguson says, "You'll see way more graphic imagery on any old episode of CSI.
"It is a little more in your face because it's live theater."