'The Pillowman': Bedtime Stories With Nightmares Built In

Now I lay me down to creep . . . Studio Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's play features, from left, Denis Arndt, Tom Story and Hugh Nees.
Now I lay me down to creep . . . Studio Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's play features, from left, Denis Arndt, Tom Story and Hugh Nees. (By Carol Pratt -- Studio Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What sort of diseased mind would find the grisly tales of "The Pillowman" entertaining?

Yours, one hopes.

To call Martin McDonagh's black comedy "macabre" is like describing the ocean as wet. In all its particulars, it is wickedly, grotesquely twisted, the product of an imagination so active it would have to be sedated with an elephant gun.

You might be wondering what possibly could be admirable in a work that can give nightmares to those tasked with the safekeeping of defenseless young children. Well, for one thing, being creeped out in gloriously cathartic style is, for some of us, one of life's guiltier pleasures. For another, the play is about the innate power of storytelling to purge unspoken terrors -- and in that regard, McDonagh is a heck of a storyteller.

In large measure, director Joy Zinoman's riveting production at Studio Theatre achieves the desired effect. A couple of elements are off the mark: Michael Gallant's generic incidental music fails to jibe with the underlying themes of the narrative and at times becomes distracting. And owing to a cartoonish approach and crude-looking props, the staging of the first hideous fable -- a second one comes across far more successfully -- delivers an insufficient churn to one's insides.

Still, the sharp production design and caliber of performances more than compensate. The actors are all solid, and two are downright superb: Denis Arndt, playing a cop with a penchant for his own brand of cruel mind game, and Aaron Munoz, as the dull-witted brother of the young writer whose gruesome stories are grist for this harrowing evening.

By turns probing and surprising and funny, "The Pillowman" takes place in the interrogation cell of a benighted police state where a short-story writer, Katurian (Tom Story), has been brought in for a brutal round of questioning. For concrete reasons that eventually are illuminated (in an admittedly overlong Act 1), Arndt's Tupolski and his menacing fireplug of a sidekick, Ariel (Hugh Nees), desperately need to know why these stories all involve the mutilation and murder of little boys and girls.

We're encouraged at first to believe the play might somehow be concerned with the question of human rights. Is Katurian a tester of the limits of a society's tolerance? In one tale, a boy has his toes hacked off; in another, a girl is buried alive. Is his choice of subject a protest against repression? Katurian declares that he is apolitical, interested solely in art for art's sake. "I'm not trying to say anything at all," he pleads, as the investigators pick away more and more vehemently at his plots and motives.

Ultimately, though, the locale appears to be a writer's device. A totalitarian state is the scene because it intensifies the imminent danger to Katurian, who can be dispatched as summarily and arbitrarily here as the children in his stories.

The tales themselves -- some recited, others acted out -- are the backbone of the play. McDonagh loves a good joke, and the verbal and visual punch lines almost always leaven the violence. The dramatization of a story called "The Little Jesus" -- which incorporates a form of torture that can be inferred from its title -- would merely seem sick if the details were to be taken out of context, or more important, if the story weren't so cleverly told.

The notion of how children are treated, and how that treatment can haunt them and others, curlicues all through the events of these stories, as well as through what happens to Katurian and his brother in their cells.

One story, in fact, reveals the bizarre evolution of the relationship between Katurian and Munoz's damaged Michal, who's also been carted in for interrogation. The beautifully orchestrated scene between Story and Munoz proves to be one of Zinoman's most inspired. Munoz is an actor of gifted intuition who knows precisely what dosage of innocence is required for Michal; it's left to us to judge whether he's naif or monster or both.

Story does his best work here as the anguished reality of his predicament sinks in fully. The performance takes some time to warm up to -- is he a tad too self-contained and clean-cut for this agitated soul? -- but it becomes more resonant as his Katurian gets more wrapped up in somehow preserving his stories if something were to happen to him.

Debra Booth's set design inventively divides the Studio's Metheny stage between the scenes of Katurian's physical captivity and ones in which the tales are spun. Helen Huang's costumes, meanwhile, ably embody the beleaguered spirit of a nation subdued by its leaders.

Arndt is a natural as Tupolski; there's a lightness in his portrayal that corresponds exactly to McDonagh's fluid irony. (His account of Tupolski's own attempt at storytelling is a little gem.) The dependable Nees provides the requisite comic bluster for the iron fist in the interrogation chamber. And as the children in Katurian's stories, Zachary Fadler and Meghan Fay bring a fresh, demented sort of joy to the cruel fables.

"Vitality" is a watchword, too, for McDonagh, who has mixed cruelty and comedy effectively in other pieces, such as "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." If "The Pillowman" isn't his best work, it's right up there, an example of a writer making a play about death and darkness exuberantly alive.

The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Lighting, Michael Giannitti; sound, Gil Thompson; fight coach, Dan Curran; sign-language consultants, Lorraine Costello, Kevin Dyels. With Julie Garner, Aaron Tone. About 2 hours 30 minutes. Through April 22 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

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