Working Title: In Bruges, In Purgatory, In The Pillowman

This Week Will Leschber will writes in only violence and expletives…

Sometimes you just need the dark. Growing up American tinges lives with a cutting, optimistic edge. This is not a value judgment. This is not a universal truism. And this is hardly a new revelation. Plenty of my friends would not describe themselves as optimistic yet there is a undercurrent of Manifest Destiny that informs the fabric of who we are. We have come to expect happy endings. We see ourselves as the good guys and believe that to be true. What strikes me these days is not this aspect of our collective identity but moreso the way it pervades our outlook. Specifically, this train of thought is a recognition of a tug that often pulls on the way we creatively tell stories or expect stories to be told. When we’ve had our fill of comfort and familiarity, an abrasive and unexpected story may be just what is required.

A story that uproots blind optimism can be supremely refreshing. Martin McDonagh, the acclaimed Irish playwright seems like a tonic to cure stories with bows and happy endings. Yet, even with his happy ending averted…or inverted, McDonagh retains a moral optimism in all of his vulgar and violent tales. This may simply come down to the characters finally lying in the beds that they’ve made.

(l-r.) Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star in Martin McDonagh's IN BRUGES, a Focus Features release.

(l-r.) Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star in Martin McDonagh’s IN BRUGES, a Focus Features release.

Now, I’m more familiar with his film work and yet I’ve been told I’ve been really missing out by not experiencing his distinct voice in Theatre. Well if you are like me and need to bath in the absurdly, hilarious darkness of a Martin McDonagh play, now’s your chance. On June 12th, The Breadbox, a company in residence at the EXIT Theatre, opens The Pillowman directed by Ariel Craft. To wet your whistle for a proper cinematic and theater pairing, I reached out to Justin Gillman who is one of the lead actors in this new production.

Justin had this to say: “There are very few individuals in cinema who can match Martin McDonagh’s sickly beautiful and uncomfortably hilarious world-view, that is so brilliantly on display in his masterpiece, “The Pillowman.” I see glimpses of it in the works of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. But, if you really want an idea of what you’re in for when you come see McDonagh’s play, look no further than his own recent writing/directing effort, 2008’s Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay, “In Bruges,” starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. The film, about two Irish hitmen in hiding, has the same signature mixture of horror and hilarity that makes “The Pillowman” so grueling yet so captivating.”


I can’t speak for The Pillowman, which I’m dying to see, but I can say that In Bruges is such a refreshing knockout-punch of obscenity, potent violence, serenely boring beauty, unexpected hilarity and genuine feeling. How McDonagh weaves such a balanced hypnotic net with such deranged and estranged parts, I’ll never know. But I do know that I love this film. Mcdonagh’s second film effort, Seven Psychopaths, while not quite as fully realize as In Bruges is still a captivating treatise on violence and the way we spin our lives into the stories we tell. I hear all these threads twist and turn within The Pillowman. Even with it’s rippling tragic core, In Bruges seems to tie up exactly as it should. It’s the definition of dark and satisfying.

Cowan Palace: Stories, Magic, and a Lesson in Life Savers

Ashley Cowan shares her love of bedtime stories and a family favorite tale.

Once upon a time there lived a girl who loved stories. Spoiler alert: it was me.

From a very early age, I fell in love with fairy tales, bedtime books, and the magical words that lent themselves to my imagination. Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are said to be in a stage of child development that can be the most suggestible making them incredibly receptive to their environment. Which makes bedtime stories told during that time even more influential; those tales will root themselves in their subconscious and continue to play. And as a child fortunate to have been introduced to many stories, I can attest to their legacies kept alive in my mind.

Luckily, I grew up in a household with natural storytellers. My mother is an educator and my father worked for the state of Connecticut as a disability claimer. Both had the opportunity to observe a variety of people on a daily basis. But the bedtime stories I treasured most were the ones about travels they had experienced. My mom was born in Portugal and my dad has been to more places than any group of people I’ve ever met combined. My favorite fascination was hearing about the years he spent living in rural African villages. I would beg my father almost every evening to tell me one of those stories (sorry Mom, you had some good ones too but how can you compete with that?).

And so I’d love to share a Cowan classic. It’s a true tale told much better by my father who lived it but here goes… My father, John, traveled through Africa on a path few may have been able to replicate. With only a backpack as a companion at times, he lived each day without a defined route. He was young, blond, and adventurous. Often, because he looked so different than some of the people he encountered, a variety of details about his background would be assumed. He once stayed at a village where the people called him “doctor” because he had a medical bag on him with very basic items (toothbrush, Band-Aids, etc.) and when they had asked him to ease their aches and pains he had administered painkillers from a small bottle. My father came upon the leader of the group who had seemed wary of him. And in a bit of a panic and after not finding much left to offer him, he handed the man the only thing he had left. One of the old Life Saver candies from the bottom of the bag. The man accepted it by immediately consuming the round colorful piece. The sweet treat proved to be a real item of interest as the man proceeded to ask my father for another with a bright smile. The Life Saver lived up to its name. He then declared that my dad was made of magic and to further thank him he gave him a simple gold bracelet. My father was reluctant to take such a gift but they all insisted and branded him with a piece of their home. That bracelet has never come off my dad’s wrist. Not after all the near death experiences he’d tackle later in his travels, or his wedding day, or even through any future medical procedures. It’s a representation of his countless adventures and the relationships that can form between strangers and he’s promised to remember that forever.

My father joins this effort to continue sharing experiences and stories; a timeless practice that has been recounted throughout human history. Within these tales are lessons of survival and morality. Bedtime stories can be an insight into a wide variety of human characteristics and behaviors. It appears that even a thousand years ago, we were still creatures capable of both gruesome violence and beautiful enduring faith that good can win out over evil. Be it for entertainment, education, religious purposes, we continue to invent the heroes, villains, and magic to reflect the pieces of ourselves we want to be remembered.

I once heard that truly wondrous stories happen to those who tell them and within each passed tale is a piece of magic just waiting to introduce itself to a new listener. So I hope you’ll join us for Pajanuary on Monday, January 21 as we revisit the land of wonder and imagination where so many of our beloved bedtime stories live. Get those pajamas pressed and look forward to spending the night between once upon a time and happily ever after.

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at