- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The images in “The Pillowman” are ghastly enough to make even John Waters, the prince of puke, want to lose his lunch. Sick, twisted, profoundly disturbing — these are high accolades for Martin McDonagh’s Grand Guignol masterpiece about the power of story.

Mr. McDonagh, a playwright who usually confines himself to squalid visions of modern Ireland, turns to the horror genre for “The Pillowman,” giving Stephen King and Clive Barker fierce competition with 10 grisly little stories he concocts as a through line for a theatrical work that moves as seamlessly as a morbid musical under Joy Zinoman’s thrilling direction at Studio Theatre.

Aside from the “Psycho” strains of Michael Gallant’s original music and Gil Thompson’s sound design, “The Pillowman” is about as far away from tuneful as you can get. It is instead a paranoid whodunit crossed with the telling of a series of dark fables. Set in an unnamed totalitarian state, the action is confined to a grim interrogation cell where two policemen — the classic setup of good cop Tupolski (Denis Arndt) and bad cop Ariel (Hugh Nees) — ruthlessly grill a writer named Katurian (Tom Story) about his involvement in some recent child murders. His mentally disabled brother, Michal (Aaron Munoz), is in the next cell, perhaps being tortured (or perhaps not) to get him to confess whether Katurian’s stories turned him into a serial killer.

“The Pillowman” goes between brutal interrogation scenes — which are leavened by profane Quentin Tarantino-esque banter — and the visualizations of Katurian’s tales, which are presented as mostly dumb shows with child actors (Meghan Fay and the astonishing Zachary Fadler) as heroes who experience shocking amounts of trauma at the hands of parents and supernatural beings. Miss Zinoman is at the height of her powers in these set pieces, which feature an exaggerated, sideshow European sensibility that reminds you of the filmmakers the Brothers Quay as well as the dreamy, trancelike evocations of violence by American auteur David Lynch. Heightening and adding a balletic precision to the tableaux makes them not only bearable but fascinating.

The Pillowman, by the way, is a malevolent version of the Sta-Puf Marshmallow Man, a big, fluffy creature made of pillows (even his teeth are tiny white cushions) who assists children in committing suicide by making their deaths look like tragic accidents. The young ones are moved to end it all after the Pillowman gives them a glimpse of their unhappy futures and gently urges them to quit while they’re ahead. As sicko as the Pillowman may seem, there’s also something oddly reassuring about this soft, empathetic presence in the lives of children poised to grow into miserable adults.

Creations like the Pillowman, the Little Apple Men (carved apple figures containing razor blades that march down the throats of bad parents) and the Little Jesus (a ghoulish evocation of the Second Coming) may give you an idea of Mr. McDonagh’s imagination, steeped in unexpurgated tales from the Brothers Grimm in the mingling of horror, morality and cautionary lessons.

Mr. McDonagh vividly remembers the power of fairy tales to horrify and hook children — before everything became sanitized and Disney turned the Little Mermaid into a mass-market princess. (In the original story, she sits on a rock in the sea and eventually dies pining for her prince.)

The tales are one level of horror in “The Pillowman,” but the mind games employed in the police cells take the play to a separate level of intensity. The seemingly grandfatherly Tupolski and the volatile bone-crusher Ariel will stop at nothing to get Katurian to confess to his role in the crimes.

As Tupolski, Mr. Arndt is electrifying, both soothingly laconic and unsettling in the way he delivers his lines as if every thought and action is occurring to him for the first time. Mr. Nees, known mainly in Washington for lighter comic and musical roles, displays brutal menace and spasms of tenderness as the avenging angel Ariel. Mr. Munoz makes an impressive local debut as Michal, beautifully conveying the limits of the character’s mental disability while displaying glints of a different kind of intelligence. Mr. Story, however, does not reach the giddy heights of the other actors, with a Katurian who is sketchy and not entirely convincing as someone defending artistic freedom to the death.

For at its grisly core, “The Pillowman” is about storytelling: the stories we tell to scare and protect our children, the stories we tell to ourselves, the familiar tales we riff on over and over with the people who know us intimately. Does the writer have a moral responsibility for the yarns he spins, especially if the stories curl into your consciousness like lethal smoke? And what if believing in them unleashes a chamber of horrors not entirely under the author’s control? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

****

WHAT: “The Pillowman,” by Martin McDonagh

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 22.

TICKETS: $39 to $55

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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