Downstairs in the dark

The Pillowman

What would you confess to while being tortured?

What would you confess to while being tortured?

Photo By katie chapman

The Pillowman; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday; $10-$15. Recommended for mature audiences only. Big Idea Theatre, 1616 Del Paso Boulevard; (916) 960-3036; Through October 15.

Big Idea Theatre

1616 Del Paso Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95815

(916) 390-9485

Rated 4.0

There are repeated warnings about the graphic nature of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman even before you enter Big Idea Theatre. The play about an author of stories about murdered children who becomes a suspect in a child-killing spree is described for “mature audiences only” on the theater’s website and ads, and you’re cautioned again by the box office when you pick up the tickets.

The warning is apt.

McDonagh’s play is intense with violent dialogue and imagery, much like his other plays—some which have been staged by B Street Theatre over the years, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara. But if you thought those were dark and edgy, The Pillowman surpasses even McDonagh’s usual disturbing fare.

Big Idea Theatre displays some big cojones in staging it, too; they prove themselves a company willing to push the envelope with this disturbing two-and-a half hour story that isn’t easy to embrace, but is intensely intriguing, and utterly unforgettable. And the performances are every bit as fascinating and memorable, with actors who get under your skin and haunt your thoughts both on stage and long afterwards.

The story doesn’t “begin” so much as “grab the audience” even before the house lights go down: A man is roughly brought onstage by two policemen and awaits, along with theatergoers, for the questioning to begin.

Katurian (Benjamin T Ismail) is the author of gruesome stories that involve the torture and murder of innocent children. Because a recent rash of murders parrot the plotlines of his stories, he’s brought into the police interrogation room, where we meet the good cop Tupolski (Brian Harrower) and the brutal bad cop Ariel (Scott Divine). From the next room come the tormented screams of Katurian’s brother Michal (Shawn B O’Neal), who has the mental capacity of a child, but who also may be the key to what happened to the murdered children.

The plot contains multiple twists and turns with our sympathies on a roller coaster as more is revealed about each of the characters. Overlaid is a larger context about storytelling, the pride of authorship and reliability of narrators. Though compelling, there are times when both the language and reenactment of grisly stories and murders feels gratuitously gruesome.

Under the careful direction of director Kirk Blackinton, the talented cast leaves lasting impressions, each an indelible mark on the overall story and production, so much so that you hope you don’t meet any of them on the dark Del Paso Boulevard alley afterwards. Ismail takes us down the rabbit role of Katurian’s tortured soul and body, while O’Neal as his mentally challenged brother captures the essence of a fellow tortured soul and hampered mind, albeit one with no protection from family and fate. Divine and Harrower create a team to be reckoned with as the couple of cops—men who torture, men with secrets, men with a mission—who can be repulsive, respected and at times highly amusing.

The Pillowman is not easy entertainment, nor for the faint of heart or for the easily offended. But it is captivating and compelling storytelling that haunts upon viewing and for days afterwards.