The Fighter: New Production Company Making Debut with ‘The Pillowman’

Priyank Rastogi and Orlando Rivera in The Pillowman

There’s a new theater kid in town fighting to make an impression on the local arts scene.

Ever since he was a young boy in India, Priyank Rastogi has been in love with the stage. “I remember the first play I saw back in India…I was blown away by the power of live performance,” says the 27-year-old. “I always wanted to be involved in theater. I still remember thinking, ‘I would like to create something magical some day.'”

While Rastogi studied computer science at New York University after moving to the United States (and Jersey City) in 2008, he’s never given up his love of drama. Since 2009, Rastogi has been working with New York City-based acting teacher Larry Singer, a scene study coach who has helped the Exchange Place resident earn his stripes as an actor.

“I have been studying with him for four years and through him, I met a lot of actors. There’s a great community of actors in New York,” says Rastogi. “When I started working with Larry Singer, my first scene was from The Pillowman, which was the first play I had ever read. No other play has moved me in the way Pillowman has.”

In The Pillowman by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, a number of bizarre child murders are suspiciously similar to the gruesome content in fiction writer Katurian’s short stories. He is threatened with torture by police eager to force him to confess to the crimes.

Katurian’s tales include “The Little Apple Men,” in which an abused girl carves men out of apples and tricks her father into eating several filled with razor blades, only to have the remaining apples jump down her throat to avenge their “brothers”. The title story, “The Pillowman,” describes a being made out of pillows that travels back in time to suicidal people’s childhoods in hopes of convincing them to end their lives then to avoid a life of suffering. The black comedy received the 2004 Olivier Award for Best New Play, two Tony Awards and other accolades.

“It’s an amazingly hilarious play, but extremely dark at the same time,” says Rastogi. “The play is a lot about child torture, about returning to innocence and finding ways of making sense of the terrible things that happen in the world.

Jon Dalin and Priyank Rastogi in The Pillowman

“All the characters try to frame things in the world every day to make it OK, but they all have deep wounds of their own which they’re trying to heal through this amazing writing. It’s like McDonagh, the writer of the play, put himself on trial in the play. It’s the writer’s trouble with his own stories,” he says.

For years, Rastogi says he has dreamed of putting on the Pillowman as “something magical.” This week, that dream is actualized with the first production of his newly founded company, FITR (pronounced “fighter”) Productions, which stands for “Fiction is Turning Real.”

While Rastogi’s acting roots are in NYC, he set his sights on his hometown and its burgeoning arts and theater scene.

“I’ve been watching theater in Jersey City and in the last four years I met so many great local artists but I wasn’t able to find the same kind of theatrical community in Jersey City–it seemed like everyone was aiming for New York,” he says. “I wanted to create a community here with plays that are just as good in quality as any New York production.”

With help from actors and crew members he met through the NYC acting scene, Rastogi founded FITR in 2012 using five years of his own savings. Together, Rastogi hopes he and the gang can bring off-Broadway quality shows to places like the Barrow Mansion; he fell in love with the Wayne Street venue after seeing productions there by the Attic Ensemble and Nimbus Dance Works.

“It’s a great space and it’s hosted some great plays, but the community needs more awareness,” he says. “I have a very strong emotional attachment to Jersey City so I would love for us to keep performing here raise that awareness and someday also try taking this company forward in other regions as well.

“My mission with this company is to turn any true ambition into reality–Fiction is Turning Real. Everybody in this team, the whole cast and crew, is here because they are extremely passionate about this play and really invested,” he says.

Rastogi is the most invested; it’s his first production venture so far (although he recently served as an associate producer with Snapped Productions’ Much Ado About Nothing in February in New York) and also the lead actor, taking on the role of Katurian, a role traditionally played by white actors.

Priyank Rastogi and Matt Kelley in The Pillowman

“It’s interesting seeing an Indian doing an eastern European play,” says Rastogi. “But it has nothing to do with ethnicity. Ethnicity and ethnic background are given a lot of importance, but I want to take that away. If someone thinks my ethnic background doesn’t make sense for this play, I don’t care about that.

“This play has nothing to do with ethnicity, so it shouldn’t be it’s driving force. It’s about character and my only concern is how to bring truth to the character.”

He adds that another challenge of playing the role is juggling it with his other duties.

“There are huge challenges in being the lead actor and producer together, like when you get out of character and do production work or when you stop production work and get into character,” he says. “But it’s really interesting and I’m enjoying every bit of it. Frankly, you need a lot of passion in you to actually do this.”

The show, directed by Laura Moss, also stars Jon Dalin, who played Benedick in Much Ado, as Tupolski; Matt Kelley, another of Singer’s students, as Ariel; and Orlando Rivera, a Bronx native who says he’s dreamt of playing his role, Michal, since seeing Pillowman.

Overall, Rastogi hopes their first show makes a strong impression, leaves their audience entertained with food for thought and changes his team members’ lives.

“Everyone would have a very strong understanding of the impact and effect of child torture and really, also the power of narration,” he says. “Our sole aim is to address the strongest truth and right now, for us, that was The Pillowman, and it took all our motivation to create it. Our biggest goal right now is for the cast and crew to feel sense of achievement and satisfaction and for everyone at the end to say they have achieved some aspect of their dream with this production.”

The Pillowman runs from May 17 to 26 on Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. There will also be a Thursday, May 23 performance at 8 pm. All shows will be at the Barrow Mansion, 83 Wayne St. Tickets are $25 can be reserved by emailing tickets[at]fitrproductions.com. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the FITR website.

Photos courtesy of FITR Productions

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.