'Pillowman' is pitch-dark

HART studio show a twisted tale
By Stina Sieg | Feb 23, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg

HART is a great place for feel-good comedies, musical romps and plays for the whole family.

Just not this weekend.

“The Pillowman,” opening Friday at Haywood Regional Theatre’s Feichter Studio, is dark, really dark, and director Charles Mills isn’t afraid to say so. That’s actually why he chose it. Though Mills has directed and acted in his fair share of light and bubbly shows, he prefers pieces that incite a little more thought (and perhaps depression) than your average crowd-pleaser. As he put it, he likes storylines he can “chew on” for a while.

“I’m a big fan of kind of dark, intense narratives that will evoke a reaction other than just laughter,” he said.

He has certainly found it here. “The Pillowman” revolves around an author, Katurian Katurian, who’s being questioned about a string of gruesome child murders that happen to mirror killings in his books. Add a few twists to this story and the fact that it takes place in a fictional police state, and you’ve got one piercing play on your hands.

It sounds dour, but Mills explained that the point is not to put people in a bad mood but to introduce them to the kind of unflinching theater that usually doesn’t make it to small towns.

“It’s certainly not a happy show, but I don’t think anybody is going to go away sobbing, however,” he said, adding that it’s “a chance to do something a little different, try to stretch the brain a little in concept.”

This opportunity isn’t just for the show’s upcoming audiences, but also for Mills’ small cast. At a recent rehearsal, they looked excited about the production, even if each member didn’t exactly know what he was getting into when he signed on.

Colin Lasley, who plays Katurian, wishes he’d read the entire script before agreeing to it, but is still eager to tackle such somber subject matter.

“It’s not as scary as I thought it was going to be,” he said.

And that’s saying something.

Lanky, with a deep voice and a dramatic way of talking with his hands, Lasley looks more the part of a writer than a killer, which adds to the play’s mystery. Lasley is also of the camp that believes there’s a bit of underlying absurdity and ultra-dark comedy in the show. Why else would his character’s middle name be Katurian? (Yes, he’s actually Katurian Katurian Katurian.)

This doesn’t, however, take away from the show’s inherent creepiness and layers of inky complexity.

“It’s a live horror film,” Lasley said, “and it’s going to be a-list quality. It’s not a bad B movie.”

Co-star Steve Turner believes that the play’s stellar writing helps create this distinction. That, far more than the gruesome plot points, makes the show, he believes.

Turner’s character, a cop named Ariel, is “an actor’s dream, actually, because the guy starts in one place and ends up another place, and goes through all kinds of dramatic stuff to get there,” he said.

With good actors and a good director, the play is “just a quality experience,” he added.

It’s still “darker than dirt,” however, to quote actor Jack Ross. Those were the words Mills originally used to get him on board. Towering Ross, who plays a cop called Topolski, explained he has a penchant for complex and heavy roles. At far past 6 feet tall, he seems a natural fit, too, for a show full of intimidation and fear. He’s happy, if a bit surprised, to get this chance.

“It’s not something you always get to see in small-town theater,” Ross said. “I like that.”

It’s part of why HART’s Feichter Studio season, which proceeds HART’s regular season, is so important to him and other local actors and directors. While HART’s main-stage shows will always bring in bigger bucks and crowds, Feichter Studio shows allow for bigger risks.

As HART Executive Director Steve Lloyd once told Ross, Feichter is “a place for actors to explore themselves.”

It is not always a place for audiences to get too comfortable, however, especially not this time around.

“We hope it’s a roller-coaster ride,” Ross said.

That “we” definitely includes Mills, who seems to get gleeful delight out of pushing the edge of the creative envelope. For this production, he’s even turning the typical seating arrangement at Feichter on its ear. Instead of sitting around the small studio stage, audiences will actually be on two sides of the main stage, with the actors between them.

Mills knows that this, combined with the subject matter and transportation to a fictitious, totalitarian world, makes “The Pillowman” one of the most ambitious — and possibly perilous — shows to hit Feichter in years. He can’t wait.

“I’m dead-curious to see how people react,” he said, with a grin.

“The Pillowman” will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24-25, and 3 p.m., Feb. 26, at HART, 250 Pigeon St. in Waynesville. For tickets, call 456-6322. The show also stars Justin Slack and Amy Hunt. Note: This show is not suitable for children, and contains adult themes and salty language.