Ronald Ibbs, Maureen Halligan, and David Bowen once bestrode the boards of San Antonio stages. Trinity and Incarnate Word hosted professional productions, and spunky troupes such as Off-Stage, Inc., Church Theatre, and the 24th Street Experiment mounted challenging productions. But, with a few notable exceptions, for the past two decades Stage One in San Antonio has most often meant drought.
Relief has finally come. Contemporary San Antonio will never be mistaken for Elizabethan London, but, like desert flowers, several local companies — AtticRep, Cellar, Classic, Overtime, Proxy — have burst into glorious bloom. Black is not a common floral color, but the Black Box of the Woodlawn Theatre is the latest addition to the city's theatrical bouquet. An Art Deco structure on Fredericksburg, the Woodlawn has been put to many uses since opening in 1946. The most quixotic, until now, was probably its turn as an art house multiplex that screened wonderful, rare cinematic fare from January-April, 1986, before going broke. To complement the Woodlawn's main stage, a venue for conventional live theater, current owners Kurt and Sherry Wehner have carved out a black-box space on the first floor. Its inaugural production, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, opened June 14.
While the audience takes its seats, a man sits blindfolded in a dark, bare room. He is a writer named Katurian, and as the play opens, in an unnamed totalitarian state, he is grilled by two detectives, Tupolski and Ariel. Tupolski seems the "good cop" to Ariel's "bad cop," but each is intent on extracting a confession from Katurian, who proclaims his innocence. Though almost all the stories he has written contain sadistic violence against children, he insists that they are only stories, without political or moral significance. "The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story," he says. "I'm not trying to say anything at all." However, Michal, Katurian's brain-damaged brother, confesses to having murdered three children in grotesque rituals inspired by Katurian's lurid tales.
The Pillowman is a play about the uses and abuses of storytelling. Each of the characters spins out narratives, though only Katurian writes them down. When one of the detectives attempts to draw conclusions from one of Katurian's gruesome fairy tales, its author warns: "It's a puzzle without a solution." The same could be said of McDonagh's enigmatic work, in which the truth of any statement is never certain. Throughout the three acts of a play that runs three hours, stories are recounted, dramatized, and improvised, but it is not clear what bearing, if any, they have outside the locked and windowless interrogation chamber.
An excellent cast endows each character with similar ambiguity. Michael Burger's Katurian is a hapless writer and beloved brother — or is he a lethal psychopath? Bryce Jeter's Michal is a sweet and harmless man-child — or is he, as Katurian, in an angry moment, calls him, "a sadistic, retarded little pervert"? Jeter seems to fall out of character when, during an overly long second act, Michal spews grown-up rage at his brother. Tyler Keyes portrays Ariel as a government thug who revels in torture, but he has more in common with Katurian than either will admit, and he cannot entirely repress a spark of humanity. As Tupolski, Ariel's partner and antagonist, Roger Alvarez affects detached control to compensate for his anxieties. While on stage, Alvarez commands attention through speech and gesture, from other characters but also from the audience. A play in which stories are recounted is obliged to make the proceedings dramatic, not just a public recitation of written prose. While the cast generally succeeds in bringing Katurian's fictions to life, Alvarez's rendition is electric.