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A Likely Story 

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh seems to be the hot ticket this hot summer. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, McDonagh's wry glance at IRA terrorism (reviewed in Gambit Weekly, Aug. 7) was still packing them in at Southern Rep when the latest of his blood-drenched laugh-fests, The Pillowman, opened at Le Petit Theatre. This one isn't about the Emerald Isle, however. It's set in an imaginary Eastern European police state.

In fact, most of the play takes place in a dreary interrogation room, where a young writer named Katurian Katurian ("my parents were funny people") is being questioned about the deaths of children. The situation, while not wholly unrealistic, is like a nightmare -- things shift and transform with a dream logic that makes it hard to know what is real and what is unreal.

I enjoyed this remarkable play, and it featured some confident, impressive performances, but what is one to make of the labyrinthine backstory? There's a half-wit brother, ostensibly kept hidden for years as part of a weird parental experiment in fomenting Katurian's creativity. Did Katurian actually kill his parents in an act of moral revenge? Fact or fiction?

At Le Petit, the stage of the second theater (where The Pillowman is presented) is a striking jumble of stuff arranged at odd angles like a German Expressionist movie. The nightmarish mood is enhanced by eerie lighting -- mostly in red and blue. (The set and lighting are by Josh Palmer and Chad Talkington.)

As the play starts, the prisoner, Katurian (Blake Balu), sits at a small table. He wears a black blindfold. Two policemen enter and put their pistols and suit jackets in the locker. The policemen stand silently and stare at the prisoner, who is aware of their presence but can't see them. It's only when one of the policemen asks the prisoner why he hasn't taken off the blindfold that we realize he's not tied up. He can easily take off the blindfold. He seems terrified of making a mistake or paying the brutal consequences of making a mistake.

Tupolski (Robert Pavlovich), the good cop, is in charge of the investigations. He seems to be in control of himself. But Ariel (Bob Scully), the bad cop, is like a roadside bomb. He explodes violently at unexpected moments, and woe to the prisoner when he does. These tormentors strip Katurian of every shred of dignity. He is not allowed to move or speak unless told to.

How can such a grim situation beget laughter? It's hard to explain. It's not warm and fuzzy, that's for sure. But then again, the last hundred or so years have been rife with totalitarian dictatorships ... and even here in the land of the free and home of the brave, something's rotten when we're arguing about the legality and desirability of secret prisons and enhanced interrogation techniques if not torture.

The story of The Pillowman presents some problems for the reviewer. The usual desire not to give away too much of the story is compounded by some pretty wild twists that make it difficult to discuss without giving away the conclusion.

Basically, Katurian is getting a lot of heat from the cops about his stories. At first, we think the stories are being interpreted as parables against the state. Many, for instance, feature children who are maimed or killed. Is this the individual stifled by authority? But then, as it turns out, there have been real children murdered like the fictional characters. The police also have rounded up Katurian's brother, Michal (Leon Contavesprie). They are the prime suspects. The police intend to torture them until they confess and then execute them.

Katurian and Michal, though wretched given the circumstances, summon up a certain solidarity. Katurian wants a promise from the police that (in addition to sparing his brother and himself) they will preserve the stories in question.

We get occasional relief from this prison Hades through some of Katurian's stories -- read by himself or by a policeman. We also flash back to the phantasmagoric world of the boys' childhood --Êthe parents' hiding the half-wit, pretending to torture him and finally getting snuffed by an outraged Katurian.

Lastly, we get the weird, shocking denouement, so weird and shocking that it should have been obvious -- and might have been, if the story took place in an English manor and not a totalitarian dungeon.

Under Dane Rhodes' direction, the players bring this macabre tale to life with naturalness and even charm (though I hope not to get caught in a dark alley with bad cop Scully). Angie Joachim, T. J. Toups and Samantha Evers round out the cast.

The Pillowman is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a good chance to see what's happening in theater today.

click to enlarge et in a fictional Eastern European totalitarian state, The - Pillowman is about a young writer who is questioned about - his work. - JOHN B. BARROIS
  • John B. Barrois
  • et in a fictional Eastern European totalitarian state, The Pillowman is about a young writer who is questioned about his work.
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