The Pillow Book

  • Our critic's rating:
    August 1, 2011

    Review by Tulis McCall
    8 Aug 2011

    This is August, the season of hard-to-get restaurant reservations, our own Fringe Festival, and little gems tucked away in small theatres.

    Such a gem is Pillow Book. This is a play that will keep you hooked from start to finish. You may not always know where you stand or in what direction you are moving, but you will never lose interest.

    Firework Theater (formerly Kids With Guns) has given Anna Moench a wonderful staging of her fascinating play. The main reason for this is the three exceptional actors who make this play take off into the stratosphere. Eric Bryan (John), Julie Fitzpatrick (Deb) and Vanessa Wasche (Deborah) crackle with skill and vitality.

    The Pillow Book is actually a descendant of other Pillow Books that were written in Japan. This little factoid would have been helpful to know – even though I never read anything about a play before I see it – because this play is a series of small scenes interspersed with lists. The original Pillow Books were called such because they were kept beside a woman’s pillow. In it were lists and notes about life at court hundreds of years ago in Japan.

    Moench’s lists are touching, intimate and revealing and each comes with a series of surprising multiple answers: things I don’t want to do (kill someone…); people who seem enviable (boring people who want boring things from life….); tests with terrifying names (SAT…). The lists are woven into the lives of John and Deb and John and Deborah. Does that sound confusing? Good. Because it is! Moench gives no signals when she changes direction, and were it not for these actors one could easily get bumped off the truck. What we eventually understand is that John and Deb are married and in the child producing chapter. Will they? They do. How does it turn out? And John and Deborah keep bumping into one another on different continents where they share, among other things) broken limbs and African insects. It is the same John (I think) but Deborah transforms into different people. Oh - they are also a married couple for a few moments. Flow charts anyone?

    There is something a little dangerous and thrilling about this kind of writing. Moench dares to fly in any direction she can imagine and swoops by to see if we would like a lift. In adding the pillows – literally – to this series of scenes she does not do herself any favors. We seek meaning where there is none. And the addition of the history of the Pillow Book further confounds the situation.

    Left on its own, this play does enough to pull you in, make you pay attention, and leave you off balance as the lights come up. David Chapman’s direction is clean and precise. The actors are a joy to watch. It’s a complete package, and we just don’t need a bunch of pillows to clutter up the space.

    I’m just sayin’.

    (Tulis McCall)

    "Moench (playwright) turns it into a hodgepodge of nonsensically related scenes. Her writing is witty and fresh, but it's hard to appreciate the insightful dialogue when the play is so impossible to follow."
    Suzy Evans for Back Stage

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