The Pillowman @ Risley Theater

“There are no happy endings in real life.” - Katurian Katurian

The Pillowman

The House of Ithaqua
Risley Theater

March 23, 2019

I know, I know, it's been a long time since writing. Not for lack of trying, but for lack of time, dedication, persistence, and whatever else you want to call "freedom" in business school. It hasn't been all quiet on the arts front, and when I saw The Ferryman at Bernard Jacobs Theater in December I felt again the thrill of drama that's been subsumed by accounting and finance exams.

Excuses are all I have, I'm afraid, though nothing can be done but start again from today.


This weekend I had the rare pleasure of a free night to see The Pillowman at Risley Theater in Ithaca. My career advisor at Johnson, Jacob Lehman, did the fight choreography and alerts me to worthy shows in this small town. I had no idea what I was getting in to.

3.5 hours later, stunned and reeling from gruesome fairy tales that seem all too real in our brutal century, I left with a weight of sadness and disarming images of little apple-men filled with razors shoving themselves down the throat of a child. Indeed, when Martin McDonagh wrote the play in 2003, he endeavored to reimagine Grimm fairy tales in light of a new day, forging a play more about the act of storytelling itself than the message. With the mesmerizing voice of Abel McSurely-Bradshaw in the lead role, I found myself trapped in his dream-like images of mutilated children moreso than I care to admit.

We start on Katurian's side in a stark room with two police officers and a rickety table. He's unsure why he's there and the cops are alarmingly nonchalant. Through a slow-moving first act (the pace of the words could have been sped up significantly, both for timing and punchier laughs), we learn that Katurian has a mentally disabled older brother, and that something involving the severed toes of a little Jewish boy has brought them both to the cops for death by electrocution.

Katurian is an author - quite an imaginative one at that - and he's created a life's work of horrifying stories that act as evidence in the police investigation. You see, someone has been killing children the same way it's described in his fables. It's almost as if Katurian has written his own death story that's playing out for all to see.

The following act takes us to a loving (if disturbing) scene between Katurian and his troubled brother. We are welcomed into memories of their childhood home, where torture caused nightmares and the grisly beginning of our hero's tale (long story, but Katurian suffocated their parents at the age of 14 with pillows in their sleep). The titular story of The Pillowman is delivered in brilliant monologue that encapsulates the attempted kindness of early death. Equal to the story itself is the act of storytelling, where words, repetition, and fine detail weave their tendrils into your mind's eye. The story has similarly burrowed itself into Katurian's brother and we're left to wonder if we would be similarly swayed to violence if we were in his shoes.

Ultimately, we discover that Katurian's brother has acted out several scenes from the stories. "You know what, they ain't that farfetched," he explains, and although this is the very nature of fables we're stunned to imagine them acted out in reality. Imagine actually shoving Hansel & Gretel into an oven and cooking them. A scene more fitting for Dexter, perhaps, than a child's bedroom.

At intermission I poked around online to discover that my favorite actor, David Tennant, premiered the main role in 2003, and I fell in love with him all over again. What I wouldn't have given to see the original cast.

Through the final scenes (somewhat dragging though they were, I'd have preferred if the cop scenes were shortened significantly) I realized that fairy tales can almost be viewed as vengeance fantasies for the atrocities suffered in youth. Witches, like abusive fathers or sexual predators, get their comeuppance eventually. In The Pillowman, McDonagh takes it a step further by using a terrible childhood to justify a terrible adulthood. But even brutal stories can be redeemed.

I'll spare you spoilers at the end, suffice to say the closing lines are brilliant beyond belief. Full of irony, fear, disgust, and compassion - you see the individual stories as characters themselves.

Though performed at a small playhouse in a small town in upstate New York, House of Ithaqua executed a fine production. Overall pace of dialogue could have improved, but I wouldn't change any of the storytelling monologues one bit. I'm thrilled to see epic dramas brought forth in unlikely cities, and I'm glad Ithaca has an outlet for the creative soul.

Image from House of Ithaqua

Ticket Price: $10

My Price: $10

Being a student is amazing. How can tickets be so cheap?

The Pillowman
House of Ithaqua
March 14-23, 2018

Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Christopher Teitelbaum

Creative Team

  • Ayla Cline, Stage Manager
  • Lea Davis, Lighting Design
  • Jacob Lehman & Jennifer Wholey Lehman, Fight Choreography
  • Jeff Hodges & Christopher Teitelbaum, Sound Design
  • Christopher Teitelbaum, Set Design
  • Brittany McAvoy, Makeup Artist
  • Dan Taylor, Graphic Design


  • Katurian - Abel McSurely-Bradshaw
  • Tupolski - Jack Sherman
  • Ariel - Mike Chen
  • Michal - Dan Kiely
  • Mother - Adara Alston
  • Father - Ben Stevens
  • Little Girl - Marcella Walsh

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