The Pillowman: A Modern Fairy Tale (No Happy Ending)

Once upon a time there was a writer named Katurian. Full name Katurian K. Katurian. His parents had a sick sense of humor, he explains to the men interrogating him police-state style. The cops, Ariel and Tupolski, are not amused. Ariel, the hothead, brandishes an electrical contraption with which he aims to torture Katurian. Tupolski tells the prisoner they're eager to shoot him when questioning concludes. "We like executing writers," says the detective matter-of-factly. "It sends a good signal."

And this is how we are introduced to the main characters—and the macabre comic noir tone—of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, now playing in a deliciously sinister, sharply acted Dallas premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater.

There is no easy way to describe this one. It's hilarious; it's horrific. It's a creepy-cool commentary on the power of the written word and how unhealed scars of child abuse burn anew into the adult psyche. Too many specific details might tip McDonagh's twists, but just remember that this is the playwright of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore—both deeply disturbing comedies that contain climactic action that hits the audience like a jolt from those electrodes.

English by birth, raised in Ireland and still under 40, McDonagh is at the top of his craft with The Pillowman, which earned awards and raves (and suffered some audience walkouts) in its runs in New York and London a few years back. McDonagh builds visual suspense like Hitchcock, gives literary nods to Vonnegut and Kafka, and makes some of the sick-puppy cinematic moves of Tarantino. His sense of how to time violence in his plays is diabolical. The Pillowman's first heart-stopper comes about an hour in, just before intermission. More shockaroos occur in the second act, and it's interesting that the penultimate surprise is a happy one—for Katurian and the viewers—that ironically sets up the motive for the brutal finale.

Up, down, funny, terrifying, this play bounds along with plenty of switchbacks and switch-ups, unpredictable and provocative. The pacing is breathless during machine gun-fast Q-and-A sequences between the policemen and Katurian. Then someone will slow it down and launch into an intense five-page monologue. In the longer speeches, the playwright does at least heed the rule he allows his main character to utter: "The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story."

And what a story The Pillowman delivers.

Katurian, played at Kitchen Dog by gangly actor Lee Trull, is a recluse who works in a slaughterhouse but uses his spare time to write stories, hundreds of stories, with titles such as "The Pillowman," "The Little Jesus" and "The Little Green Pig." They are strange, awful parables, mostly about children—whiny, obnoxious tots who meet horrific ends, losing toes to knives and swallowing apple slices studded with razor blades. In one, a little girl is crucified and buried alive. Katurian's fractured fairy tales never get published, but he hopes that one day they will be read and appreciated. It's what he lives for. And he'll die for it if he has to.

Only when he is taken into custody does Katurian learn that police believe the grisly murders in his fiction are being acted out for real in copycat fashion. Several children in the area have been killed, toes sliced from one, razor blades stuffed down the throat of another. A third is still missing. Katurian insists he is innocent and offers to edit anything out of his pages that might be deemed politically incorrect. In this unnamed totalitarian realm, free expression, human rights and due process are extinct—but his fate is sealed as soon as he hears that his brain-damaged adult brother Michal (Cameron Cobb), also a suspect, is locked up in the room next door. Are those Michal's screams bleeding through the walls?

Nothing about The Pillowman is as straightforward as it seems, however. There are multiple layers to this play, constructed by McDonagh and amplified by Kitchen Dog's fine team of directors, designers and actors. What begins as a cat-and-mouse crime story evolves into something more stylish and more frightening. As the playwright questions how much power writers have and how much social responsibility they should shoulder for effects their words have on others, he also condemns government officials who misdirect public emotion by condemning art and media for criminal acts. McDonagh puts his own work on trial in a way by cleverly channeling through Ariel and Tupolski what critics have said about his predilection for pushing the limits of blood and black humor on the stage.

As cautionary messages go, The Pillowman is both fanciful and full of bitter truths about a time in the not-too-distant future when blaming the messenger could become just cause for prosecution. It's happened before, of course, starting with Ovid (banished from Rome for his poetry) and continuing through Milton, de Sade, Solzhenitsyn, Salman Rushdie and all those poets and writers still imprisoned in China, Burma and Cuba. Maybe that's reading too much into the play, maybe not. At its core, it's a nifty thriller that can be mined for bigger ideas.

It's also a hell of a way for Kitchen Dog to open its 18th season. Co-directed by Christina Vela and Jonathan Taylor, this production benefits from a deep bench of talent with actors who work closely in ensemble scenes and then break out for those extended monologues. Trull, a company member at KDT and Dallas Theater Center, is the perfect pasty-faced patsy in the early scenes, then he roars to life as his Katurian character finds the strength to try to outsmart his captors. As Tupolski, the detective played by Jeff Goldblum on Broadway, Ian Leson adopts some of Goldblum's vocal mannerisms, delivering dialogue as though it had no punctuation to indicate stops and starts. Come to think of it, tall, handsome Leson is always a little Goldblumian in every role he plays, but here he's especially chilling and brilliant.

As the "bad cop," Ariel, Michael Federico is a worthy counterpuncher to Leson, though his character is thinly written except for a few angry outbursts. Cameron Cobb takes on what could be the "Rain Man role" as Michal, Katurian's childlike brother. He has the longest, most difficult story to tell at the end of Act 1, and his performance never goes, to use a current inelegant phrase, "full retard."

There are other actors and other characters in The Pillowman, but to tell you who they are and what they do would be to give away more than you should know before seeing it. Go ahead and get good and scared by this show. And then let it keep you awake a night or five afterward. Not just for its shriveled, severed baby toes and Lemony Snicket imagery, but for its warnings about the rise of the morality police. Where writers can't write freely, nobody lives happily ever after.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner