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The Pillowman: Intense Theater at its Best

Jim Amidon — I slinked into the experimental theater Monday night to snap a handful of photos to publicize the Wabash College Theater’s production of the Tony Award-winning play The Pillowman.

Director Michael Abbott and scene designer James Gross always create intimate and powerful theater in the little black box of a stage and The Pillowman is no exception. In fact, it might be the best example of intensely gripping theater I’ve ever seen.

I was not fully prepared for the experience. My plan was to come and go quickly — getting the shots I needed for the website and local newspapers. But I soon found myself staring at the scene of an accident — not wanting to look, not wanting to stay, but unable to leave.

Be forewarned: The Pillowman deals with intense, mature subject matter and contains graphic language. Come if you want to experience the power of good theater; stay away if you are easily offended or uncomfortable with macabre themes.

I saw Paul Boger’s electric performance in True West in the Experimental Theater back in 1987, and I’ve seen a couple of versions of Glengarry Glen Ross down there, so I know how the space lends itself to intense drama.

From the very first scene with veteran stars Matt Goodrich and Spencer Elliott, I was hooked.

See pictures from Monday’s dress rehearsal here and here.

Abbott and Gross have created an environment where the audience is a witness — looking through one of those windows they use in police interrogation rooms. You’re there, in the room with the characters, but you’re protected on the “other side” of the glass.

However, there is no hiding from the intensity — of the performances or the subject matter.

Elliott turns in his finest performance to date (with a kind nod to The Elephant Man) as Katurian, a writer of graphic stories depicting dark, disturbing child murders. He and his brother Michal (played brilliantly by Luke Robbins) are under suspicion for the murder of a couple of children in the community.

Goodrich, as Tupolski, and Dan Masterson as Ariel, play a detective and street cop, respectively, and bring layer upon layer of intrigue to their complicated characters. They’ll stop at nothing — literally — to discover the truth behind the grizzly murders.

The Pillowman moves in and out of reality; at times the audience is listening and watching as Katurian tells one of his stories. The barriers of story and reality are blurred. As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that real life does, in fact, imitate art.

History professor Stephen Morillo, his wife Lynne Miles-Morillo, and daughter Dione have small roles in the play. And like they say, there are no small roles in the theater. The Miles-Morillo family brings uncomfortable creepiness to an already dark comedy.

By the time the Miles-Morillos had hit the stage, my couple of photos had turned into a couple hundred shots. The intensity of the play forced me to watch through my viewfinder — to distance myself by hiding behind the camera.

But there is no escaping The Pillowman.

Start to finish, the acting in Michael Abbott’s production is first rate, even stellar. Abbott has shown over the years he can make magic with large casts and sprawling plays. In The Pillowman — with a tiny cast of veteran performers — the powerful impact of theater is taken to a new limit.

The Chicago Tribune called the play an “unflinching examination of the very nature and purpose of art.” I agree on one aspect of that — the unflinching part.

The 2005 Tony Award-winner is brutal, even gruesome at times.  It gets inside you and stays with you. This play is not for the faint of heart.

I love good theater and I love the power of theater done well. Michael Abbott’s production of The Pillowman is good theater done very well.

Performances are scheduled for 8:00 p.m. February 25-28. Tickets are available through the Wabash College Box Office (boxoffice@wabash.edu) or (765) 361-6411.

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