Tony Amendola ~ The Pillowman

Paper Airplanes and Razor Blades:
Tony Amendola in The Pillowman

By Zimrahil (Saturday Matinee, 20 January 2007)

I make it a policy never to read reviews of anything I am about to read/watch or listen to. I find it colours my experience and hampers my ability to simply take something on its own merit. I unfortunately threw my usual caution to the winds when Helena sent me a series of urls to reviews.

I should not have looked.

But I'm at heart a spoiler junkie so I did. What I read made The Pillowman out to be nothing but blood, gore, hard core swearing and what little good was left ending up in mangled vulgarity. I sat down in the theatre expecting something of that nature. But as I waited through the three hours none of the dire predictions of the reviews came to pass. I was not the only one that felt this way, as a chap next to me commented after it was over "I've played video games that were gorier".

What I came back with was a sincere question about what makes a "happy ending". This has always been of interest to me as I once wrote an essay on the misconception of what a "Faerie Tale ending" actually
constituted. In other words: spiked barrels, heated oil, etc. McDonagh's (the playwright) so-called faerie stories that he tells through the character of Katurian (Erik Lochtefeld) were not at all shocking to me. I had been brought up with complete freedom to research by my parents. As a result, instead of reading modern French Court Childrenized fairy stories I went back to the originals. Blood, gore, tortured endings and all. A "happy" ending saw the villains in a sea of their own blood -- and that was if they were lucky. Katurian's tales never went near the violence of the original stories that have been passed down through the ages - Cinderella in its original form, even Sleeping Beauty with the limbs ripped off and so forth.

On the contrary, I found the stories read out not only refreshing but, as Katurian himself points out, they always have a "twist". I love being surprised at the endings and most of the time I was. I was highly entertained by this play -- although I'm not sure if that is more of a tell about my dark sense of humour, morbid fascination with violent fairy stories or just how well written this play is. The point being I can see why Tony Amendola agreed to be in this work. It is a highly complex play that makes you think and laugh at the same time while being slightly ashamed of laughing. I'm afraid I found some parts funny that no-one else did so I'd be sitting there silently gaffawing and trying to hide the fact since it was so twisted that I found it funny at all. As for swearing in it - I've seen worse outbursts on Battlestar Galactica or high schoolers walking down the street.

The play begins in the pitch black with music that sounds somewhat like knives being sharpened. I'm not sure if that was deliberate or if the original ran out of money for a composer and so sat down in their kitchen with a mike. Katurian is in a chair with a blindfold on along with Arial (Andy Murray) the burly policeman with a vaguely UK accent and Tupolski (Tony Amendola) in a smart looking if slightly antiquated suit. It becomes clear that Katurian doesn't know why he was in the police station and the two detectives aren't about to tell him. They're having too much fun tormenting him.

Tupolski goes through a long charade of filling out a form and asking irritating questions, then tears it up in the end and informs Katurian it was a joke. Anyone who's filled in government forms knows what he feels like. But it is also extremely funny. I've seen Tony in lots of different tv shows and movies but never have I seen him do humour. Much less dark humour. But he had me in stitches with the "peripheral vision" speech. He is incredible with body language and how he was twisting about explaining that Katurian could not have possibly seen the paper through peripheral vision to which Katurian responds that perhaps he saw it out of the bottom of his eyes...does that have a name? "No" responds Tupolski as the audience laughs. Finally they start going into Katurian's stories. At this point Amendola takes off his jacket and reveals a sidearm which he lovingly adjusts and goes to stand over on stage right. Katurian begins to read his only published work. I would love to explain all the stories in detail but if you ever see the play it will ruin it for you so I'll only really tell this one and one other of relevance.

A little boy is poor and mistreated by other children and people. But he is a very kind boy who loves everyone. One day he is sitting by a bridge about to partake of his meager lunch when he sees a stranger drive up in a cart. The little boy holds up his sandwich to offer a portion to the stranger who gets down and happily shares the boy's meal. Afterwards, the driver tells the little boy he has been so kind that he will give him something - something the boy might not understand at the moment but will thank him for later. As the boy closes his eyes, the driver pulls out an axe and cuts the boys toes off. He flings the toes to a large amount of rats in the cart, then drives on into the town of Hamlin.

You see - the driver was the pied piper of Hamlin.

Katurian believed it was he who brought the rats in the first place and the ultimate goal was to steal the children. The little boy by the road was the crippled boy who could not catch up and was thus saved. I thought it was a very interesting perspective and an almost morbidly sweet story. Tupolski doesn't agree. He pulls out a box and I instantly knew what was inside. Toes of a little boy. But at that moment, the thug Arial comes bursting in with a fake bandage on. He is trying to convince Katurian that his brother Michal was being tortured in the next room. Katurian loses it completely and starts shouting about wanting to see his brother.


Tony looks mildly disinterested as Arial and Katurian shout at each other. Eventually things calm down and Tupolski puts the box on the floor and opens it, deliberately placing a series of small toes on top. But they don't really look like toes. If he hadn't actually pointed it out and I had already guessed as much you wouldn't know. There is also an amusing part earlier where Tupolski is explaining the rules of prisoner behavior. In other words: respond only when having been asked a question ending with the eyes indicating you can answer. When Katurian answers rhetorical questions he yells at him, then asks him a question to which Katurian doesn't respond and he starts doing some really hilarious things with his eyes trying to indicate Katurian is allowed to answer this one. Tony Amendola is incredible at acting with his eyes so this was right down his alley.

The whole part was, actually, I could see why they would want him cast as Tupolski. Throughout this entire act, Tony Amendola just amazed me with his subtle yet effective humour. He makes ordinary movements and gestures incredibly funny with their emphasis and timing. He also keeps making various shrewd remarks, such as when Katurian still has his blindfold on why he didn't take it off, "it just makes you look stupid". Amendola did have a little trouble getting the box (tin technically) off the floor, it took several attempts. That was one of the few prop issues I spotted. There were some others but I won't bore you with them. That is one of the problems of being in theatre myself -- I always spot things like that. I'll go to the ballet and notice ever bobby pin that falls off, shoe undone and jump miscalculated. But that is one of the things I love about live theatre. One of the things that makes it real - human - alive. (If you are a Cylon in disguise my apologies. I feel your pain).

  A Review by Zim

Tupolski leaves the stage and it goes dark again for a scenery change. This time to the "happy" version of The Writer and the Writer's Brother. I won't tell you about it as it isn't particularly Tony or plot related. Excellent though -- oh and I met Howard Swain (Father) before the performance. Very nice man.

The scene then changes to where Katurian's brother, Michal is sitting alone trying to remember the story of the Green Pig. Katurian stumbles in all bloody from being tortured. He tells his brother Michal The Pillowman story to cheer him up.

Now I wasn't going to tell you but it is the title of the play so here it is reader's digest version. Once upon a time there was a very tall man made up entirely of pillows. His arms, his smiling head, even his fingers were little pillows. He was a kind man who wanted to help people. When some miserable human being (again apologies Cylon agents and Jaffa) was about to commit suicide in despair, he would be there at their side to comfort them. He would then travel back in time to when that person was a little child. He would tell the child about the horrible life they would lead, full of pain and suffering, and how it would end. In front of the oven, over a bridge, a gun in their mouth. He would lovingly take the child's hand and suggest they could end it right then and avoid that horrible life. Most children chose to and the Pillowman would help them think of ways to do it so it would look like an accident. Where to run out through parked cars, where the pill jars were. But finally the Pillowman could not take this depression any longer. He decided to do one last job. He went back to his own childhood. But as his childself died, he disappeared. But he ceased to exist with the horrible realization of the thousands of children who came back to life to live in misery until they finally decided to end it years later.

But it soon comes to light that Katurian's brother was the one who had killed the boy whose toes that had been, the girl and maybe the third missing girl. It comes out in a very morbidly funny way however. Katurian asks how the third girl had died. His brother replies he acted out the "Little Jesus" story. You don't need details to know how that one ended. Katurian is horrified. There is an extended scene as he comes to grips with this realization. Extremely well acted by Erik Lochtefeld and Matthew Maher (Michal).

Eventually, Michal wants to go to sleep and insists his brother tell him a story - the Green Pig story. Once upon a time there was a little green pig. He was a happy pig who was glad he was peculiar, but the other pigs hated it and made fun of him and bothered him. This created such a scuffle in the pig house that the farmers were aggravated (it got on their nerves). They took the little green pig and covered him head to tail in pink paint. This was a special kind of paint. It cannot be washed off and it cannot be painted over. Katurian brushes his hands vertically then horizontally as he says that last phrase.

The little formerly green pig was very sad. He liked being peculiar. So he prayed to God asking for His help. And God sent a special storm - a green rainstorm where the rain was so thick it was like paint. The next morning all the other pigs were bright green with paint that cannot be washed off and cannot be painted over. All except the little old green pig, covered in paint that could not be painted over. The only pink pig in the barnyard, he was once more peculiar. Katurian gazes fondly but sadly at his brother -- then smothers him to death. He goes to the door and pounds on it, shouting he is ready to confess to his involvement in the murder of six people.

End of Act One.

Act Two opens with a dramatization of the Little Jesus story, then back to Tupolski's office. It turns out Katurian wants to save his stories and knows the detectives will burn them after he is executed. The play is set in a totalitarian state where no trial is necessary. He makes a deal - full truthful signed confession and they simply file his stories to be taken out fifty years later. Tuploski agrees to it and Katurian begins writing. The confession is hilarious in and of itself, as the detectives can read faster than Katurian writes and he always seems to leave it at a cliffhanger ending each page. Tupolski goes out to tell the forensics where to the search for the third girl's body.

Arial begins to gleefully get out the electrodes to begin torturing Katurian some more. But he starts talking - about how he hates guys like Katurian. How when he's old little kids will come up and give him sweets and thank him for making them safe. He goes on so long he doesn't get to the actual torture before Tupolski returns, amazed he hasn't begun yet. He sighs and says something about "not the old man and the sweets've used that twice today already" or words to that effect. He and Arial get into a bit of an argument as Katurian is kneeling down on the floor looking amazed. What was with that peripheral vision stuff earlier...

Arial grumbles and questions Tupolski's ability to be first in that case and marches out. Tupolski, however, has begun to smell a rat in Katurian's story and starts to question him more. He gets sidetracked, however, into telling his own story after admitting he was moved by The Pillowman. He had lost his own son to a tragic accident and said it was comforting to think that someone warm and soft and kind was with him and that his son hadn't died alone. This leads to Tupolski telling his one story -- about his worldview -- or view of detective work. He tells it very badly in a way that had everyone in the audience laughing almost constantly. I could never do it justice, you'd have to see Amendola's incredible portrayal of it.

There is a little deaf Chinese kid walking down some railroad tracks. Actually he'd have to be a mentally retarded deaf kid. I mean who would walk down railroad tracks when they're deaf -- they'd never hear the train coming. So a little Chinese retarded deaf kid is walking down some railroad tracks. Far away behind him a train comes hurtling towards him. But the child can't hear it coming and the driver couldn't see him until it was too late. A few miles along the tracks is an old tower with an old Chinese man in it working on his inventions. He sees the little deaf Chinese deaf did he know he was deaf? Uh...he saw his hearing aide in the distance...*right* this little deaf kid is walking down the tracks, see, and this old man in the tower sees him. Now instead of running out and helping the little kid, he starts a calculation. At what spot would the train collide with the little kid walking down the tracks. A few minutes later the old man finishes. 10 yards from the base of the tower the train will plow right through the little deaf kid's back. Disinterested, the old man folds the paper into an airplane and tosses it out of the window, going back to his work. Eleven yards before the base of the tower, the little deaf boy jumps off the tracks to catch the paper airplane as the train thunders by harmlessly behind him.

So how is that Tupolski's view on the world?

Well the old man is him, working hard at his detective work and out of touch with humanity. The kid is the people - oblivious to the destruction right behind them. When Katurian asks why the old man didn't help, Tupolski is horrified. Of course he did! He sent the paper airplane.

He then tries to show how the plane wasn't an accident and goes on and on but it doesn't help. When Katurian comments the story good but not that good, Tupolski goes ballistic. This is especially effective since he has appeared so calm through most of the play. The detective pulls out a lighter and is about to set fire to some of Katurian's stories until the frantic writer swears Tupolski's story is the best ever and better than his own work. They both sit down and there is silence for a little while. Tupolski comments it is too bad they have to shoot him in the head in twenty minutes. In a hilariously morbid way Katurian begins asking questions. Like what will happen. "First we put this hood over your head, then take you into the other room, then shoot you in the head. Wait...that's not right...we take you into the other room, then put the hood on and then shoot you in the head. If we put the hood on in here you might bump into something on the way to the other room and hurt yourself". He also tells Katurian he has ten seconds for final prayers after the hood goes on before he'll shoot him.

But then Arial bursts into the room and announces they've found the last girl. Everyone in the room and audience braces to hear the news of the mangled corpse. Instead a little girl covered in green paint bounces happily into the room. Katurian is overjoyed as he discovers his brother had not acted out the Little Jesus story but the Green Pig tale. The little girl was unharmed and found with a group of pink piglets. Tupolski, however, does not seem very happy with this news and informs Katurian their deal is now off. As he starts a fire in the garbage can and prepares to burn the stories, Katurian begs, screams and pleads. But Tupolski hangs tough -- the deal was for a truthful confession. Katurian had given them a confession of what they wanted to hear -- he hadn't hurt any children. But he had killed his brother and his parents. (His parents had tortured his brother for seven years until he rescued him). Katurian knees down on stage right as Tupolski cocks his 1930s style snub pistol. The hood is put on, and Tupolski begins to count. I knew he would never wait ten seconds -- he was too slippery for that. With every number I expected the gun blast.

10...9...8...7...6...5...4 *BANG*

I swear half the audience nearly fell out of their seats or shrieked slightly. How could they not know he'd do that. Granted I wasn't sure which number he'd "misfire" on but it was what that character would do. He even shot the poor man from behind. There was a thud, then fake blood oozed out from under the hood. Not too much though - I figure they had a pack hidden in the hood so when he fell on it it split open. Tupolski smiles, then leaves, giving a parting injunction to Arial to burn the stories. But everyone knew he wouldn't. And indeed he did not.

I haven't covered half of what this play was about, or what moved me personally about it. The former because if I went on in detail about a three hour play you'd be reading for six hours, and I doubt you really care how it affected me personally. So for the Tony fangirls out there - further proof of this man's brilliant acting ability. I am honoured to have been able to see him in this work, and look forward to seeing him in others. Even if Amendola is not in it, I'd recommend seeing The Pillowman -- as long as you have a somewhat dark sense of humour and are able to laugh at inappropriate moments.