It’s disconcerting that very little media violence shocks us anymore. After all, any night of the week, we can watch crime scene investigators scrape brain matter off a ceiling. So it’s somehow reassuring that the violence in The Pillowman, now appearing at Brüka Theatre, is startling and unnerving.
This brilliant Brüka production of Martin McDonagh’s newest masterpiece is directed by Brian Barney and stars Bob Grimm (RN&R’s film reviewer) as a writer whose grisly short stories bear a remarkable likeness to several recent murders.
Grimm’s Katurian K. Katurian (his folks had a “strange sense of humor") is being interrogated by agents “good cop” Tupolski (David Richards) and “bad cop” Ariel (Scott Dundas) about this alarming resemblance. The play’s setting, an unknown totalitarian state, is apparently an excuse for the absence of any attorneys or pretense of justice.
During a brutal interrogation scene—thanks to fight director Sasha Mereu—in Act I, we learn the plots of several of Katurian’s stories, whose “once upon a time” style resembles bedtime stories right up until their horrific climaxes. Because the stories’ plots are integral to the play’s storyline, I hesitate to reveal them, but they are clearly the product of Katurian’s own torturous history of child abuse. In fact, of his approximately 400 stories (all but one unpublished), only one about a little green pig doesn’t involve “some poor kid getting screwed.”
Katurian’s mentally disturbed brother, Michal (Rodney Hurst), has also been brought in for questioning, and he’s used as bait to convince Katurian to admit the “truth” about the murders. But that hits too close to home—when he was a child, Katurian’s parents did much the same thing. The brothers are inextricably linked, and as we learn in a revelatory Act II, the actions and circumstances of one have repeatedly led to disaster for the other.
It’s during Act II that we learn the plot of “The Pillowman,” Katurian’s story about a kind man made of pillows who lulls children into committing suicide to escape life’s miseries. As it turns out, this story decides not only the fate of the brothers’ relationship, but also of Katurian and his stories. It inevitably leads the audience to question the role of artistic responsibility. As Katurian exclaims in Act I, “I’m not trying to say anything. I just write stories.” But if those stories inspire murder, isn’t he somehow responsible?
This show rightly bears an “explicit” rating, but nonetheless, it works on every level. When I last saw Bob Grimm on stage, in Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening With The Illuminati, he played a sweaty, dirty and somewhat twisted lead—traits that apparently are right in his wheelhouse because he applies them masterfully here to make Katurian at once both pitiful and fearsome.
Hurst seems to have watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape several times because his portrayal of Michal is lovable yet creepy and closely resembles Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in that film.
Richards and Dundas expertly turn their good cop/bad cop routine into comic genius. Even as they torture our hero, you can’t help but like them.
Add to that some genuinely creepy original music by Bill Kersten and innovative set design, and the result is that The Pillowman is the stuff of theater dreams.