If you’re on the hunt for Halloween chills this year, you’re probably planning to visit a haunted house, maybe catch a slasher flick or two. Theater may be the last thing on your mind.
But this year, Springs Ensemble Theatre is offering a Halloween treat guaranteed to give you nightmares.
It’s The Pillowman, the 2003 play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, best known for his black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Like most of his plays, The Pillowman is very funny and intensely violent. (See our preview of the play here.) But the violence isn’t there for its own sake, as in the bloody plays of the Grand Guignol. The violence has a point, and McDonagh is a genius at plumbing the depth of human depravity in order to unearth some deeper truths.
The power of the piece hits you as soon as the lights come on. A steel door slides open and a hooded man is shoved sprawling onto the floor of a bleak interrogation chamber.
His name? Katurian Katurian. His crime? Writing grisly stories about the torture and murder of children. Only they’re not fiction. One by one, Katurian’s stories are coming true, and the grim-faced police officers grilling him want to know why.
As Katurian, Jeremy Joynt ekes out every bit of humanity from his character. His Katurian is a heroic figure, standing up to his tormentors with noble courage and a wry wit. Only the threat of violence against his brain-damaged brother could make him cave. Of course, as soon as he hears the tortured screams coming from the next chamber, he knows that’s exactly what the police officers have in mind.
Joynt is a talented young actor, and I’ve enjoyed his work before. Unfortunately, on opening night, he was way under-rehearsed, forgetting some lines and stumbling over others.
Director Max Ferguson made a number of other inspired choices in this production. One of the most effective of these is to cast Lisa Siebert, a sweet-faced blonde who just happens to be seven months pregnant, as Tupolski, the hard-nosed cop originally written as a man. She’s quick to point that she’s the “good” cop of the pair. But as played by the gifted Siebert, she’s actually the more intimidating of the two, for the weapon she wields — her cold, calculating mind — is more dangerous than any truncheon.
Plus, she really, really wants to kill Katurian.
“Dimwits we can execute any day of the week,” she says. “But if you execute a writer, it sends a signal.”
Tom Auclair is Ariel, the bad cop. At first I thought he was too one-dimensional, playing the cop as just another heartless thug of the nameless totalitarian regime he serves. But as his own secrets come to light, divulged by an increasingly hostile Tupolski, Auclair allows a more nuanced vulnerability to peek through his stern façade.
And making his debut with SET is Micah Speirs, doing an admirable job in what may be the toughest role to pull off, that of Katurian's mentally handicapped brother Michal.
McDonagh tells some truly horrific stories in this work. But when you get right down to it, they aren’t any more violent than the original versions of Grimm’s fairy tales. It’s only in their presentation that they horrify us. And for this, Ferguson deftly pulls a variety of magic tricks out of his hat.
One tale about a little girl who wants to be Jesus — right down to the crucifixion — is illustrated by Langdon Foss, a local artist with a national reputation for his graphic novel work. One is acted out with stiff-limbed shadow puppets, designed by the multi-talented Jillmarie Peterson. (She usually does SET's costumes.) And one is performed, believe it or not, as a delicate ballet by Cheyenne Mountain High School freshman Gabby Papa.
Only one, a film featuring the title character by Oscar Robinson, lacked the necessary creepiness. This is largely because his Pillowman — a mysterious figure who encourages children to kill themselves — is too cartoonish, failing to live up to the macabre image on SET’s poster.
McDonagh’s dialogue can get monotonous at times, especially when his characters volley the same line back and forth like some demented comedy duo. But he’s brilliant in the way he uses violence and disturbing imagery to explore tough philosophical questions, questions that touch on everything from the justification of suicide to the nature of creativity.
If this all sounds too deep for you, don't worry about it. You can always just go for the blood.
Through Oct. 28, Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m.
Springs Ensemble Theatre, 1903 E. Cache la Poudre St.
Tickets $15/Student Rush $10; call 357-3080 or visit springsensembletheatre.org.