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Theater Review - An unfortunate series of events

Bad dreams come alive in The Pillowman

As a critic, I don't scare easy. I don't fear to tread in shadowy theaters to witness grim, brutal dramas, or revisit imaginary or historical horrors in films and documentaries. Stage blood never makes me squeamish.

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So it's not a light remark when I call The Pillowman at Actor's Express one of the most dark and disturbing shows I've ever seen. It starts out ominously, with a blindfolded writer held prisoner in an interrogation room of a nameless, totalitarian police state. And after that, things really start to become unpleasant. In its sharp, suspenseful production of The Pillowman, Actor's Express feeds its audience into a wringer, but in the name of some powerful and provocative ideas.

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Daniel May plays Katurian, a blue-collar drudge who only finds respite in writing stories. At first he practically falls over himself to cooperate with his interrogators: thuggish Ariel (Jeff Feldman) and sinister, smiling Tupolski (Mark Kincaid). After Ariel strikes Katurian, Tupolski quips, "I almost forgot to mention — I'm the good cop, he's the bad cop."

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Katurian tries to deny any political leanings in his personal or creative life, but the detectives' questions zero in on the content of his grim fairy tales, which frequently involve mistreated children. Katurian grows confused, then horrified, when the police point out similarities between the details of his plots and some recent grisly crimes.

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The rules of torture currently provide fodder for political debate, and The Pillowman explores powerful arguments against prisoner abuse and government censorship — although quoting George W. Bush at the top of the show seems a bit too on-the-nose. I wonder if it's a coincidence that Kincaid, in spectacles, slicked-back hair and three-piece suit, bears a resemblance to Department of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

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The Pillowman seems to come less from the headlines than some deep recesses of the psyche of playwright Martin McDonagh, as if he's airing his worst nightmares. Born in London to Irish parents, McDonagh earned his reputation as a kind of theatrical enfant terrible, particularly in his charged, violent works set in remote Ireland. In his most famous play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a nasty old woman gets her hands badly burned onstage (and then some). You can imagine the two-time Tony-winning Pillowman emerging from McDonagh's concerns if his play, say, inspired a real-life attack on an old woman. What responsibility do artists bear if their works incite actual violence? A writer may be The Pillowman's hero, but May doesn't soften the sadistic element of his art. The actor recites Katurian's tales with a wicked tone of voice, like the Marquis de Sade interpreting Lemony Snicket.

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For a while, the play's dread finds a little respite in the extended sequence with Katurian and his brother Michal (John Benzinger), a simpleton more concerned with his "itchy ass" than the prospect of the siblings' torture and execution. When grim works like 1984 depict people at the mercy of the state, escapist fantasies or tender relationships can provide release, however fleeting. Katurian, however, finds himself betrayed by both brotherly love and his creative impulses. Inner lives and external society prove equally bleak.

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The tense, volleying confrontations make The Pillowman a consistently compelling show, even over its lengthy running time. The four actors and director Jasson Minadakis (in his final production as Actor's Express's artistic director) take advantage of the play's unexpected flares of comic relief. The snide Tupolski and the childish Michal, for very different reasons, behave almost cheerfully in the gravest possible circumstances. Minadakis doesn't hide behind the gallows humor, though, or rely on simple shock value. The Pillowman makes for rough going, not just for the onstage gore but for the verbal imagery of tormented childhood that shoots through nearly the entire play.

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Given the severity of the material, The Pillowman builds to a pair of grace notes near the end of the show that feel almost miraculous. The Pillowman's vision of misused authority, parental betrayal and futile resistance leaves you shaken and drained, with a queasy feeling that doesn't easily go away. But that's probably the way it should be. Such sensations prove you're still human.