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Theater Reviews

Feb 11, 2007 - Storytelling and horror zings Bruka's

By By Jack Neal

"The Pillowman" is the blackest of black comedies. So black, in fact, that to laugh at what playwright Martin McDonagh throws into his gurgling cauldron of dialogue can be even more frightening than the play itself.

Why does the grotesque make us laugh? What is it we're laughing at?

"The Pillowman" opened Friday night (2/9/07) at Reno's Bruka Theatre. If you don't mind an evening dealing with the humor of murder, mutilation and dismemberment, "The Pillowman" - at an even three hours running time - provides plenty of all three and more.

McDonagh, a contemporary British playwright, does his storytelling through lurid material. Yet for all its darkness of plot, "The Pillowman's" real subject is not gruesome crime but storytelling and the theatrical potential to pull audiences into an abyss of darkness that ignites human emotion and forces viewers to react with a gasp of reality that questions what makes us tick.

And ticking is something "The Pillowman" does over and over, as if waiting for a bomb to explode. In a play that taps into a boiling pool of emotion, it's the over and over again that wears a bit thin. Length can be important in achieving theatrical impact, but as the performance wears on the play's extensive verbal exchanges tend more to exhaust than enlighten.

The most compelling part of "The Pillowman" comes before intermission, when Katurian, the writer of stories, played with power and pathos by Bob Grimm, has a heart-to-heart talk under the most trying of circumstances with his mentally challenged brother, Michal, a role re-created brilliantly by Rodney Hurst. The scene, loaded as it is with dark humor, is gut wrenching and marvelously brought off. Is Act II a coda, or is it important as written in McDonagh's scheme of things? Important, of course, but is it as powerful as it could be?

Katurian is the play's protagonist. He's an arrogant chap, whose 400 short stories of fiction, some of which have come true, might read - as McDonagh has called it like a how-to guide of "101 ways to skewer a five-year-old." The stories have landed Katurian and Michal in prison in a totalitarian state, where they are questioned and tortured by two police officers.

The officers, the explosive Ariel and the sardonic Tupolski, are incredulous about the coincidences between Katurian's writing and the reality of local murders. The totalitarian environment allows the officers to verbally, emotionally and physically attack the brothers. The plot ranges from Katurian's gruesome tales, which come to life in chilling flashbacks, to the ruthless interrogations of the officers. As the officers, David Richards is a maddeningly-on-target Tupolski, and Scott Dundas is a searingly-fearful Ariel.

In the flashback scenes, Mary Bennett and Dale Fast are both loving and hateful - and impressive, as is Connor Norton in grim juvenile portrayals. Sensitively directed with miniscule attention to detail by Brian Barney, with haunting musical underscoring by Bill Kersten, dark moody sets by Lew Zaumeyer, and flat lighting befitting the circumstances by David Simpson, "The Pillowman" is dynamic, teasing, shifting, provocative entertainment.

"The Pillowman" can be seen at the Bruka Theatre, 99 North Virginia Street, Reno, Nevada, at 8 p.m. February 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, March 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9 (2007), and February 18 and March 4 (2007) at 2 p.m. For information call 775-323-3221.

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