It is the rare police interrogation chamber that doubles as a shadow-puppetry stage. It’s a rarer one still that also appears to be located inside a security-directorate meeting hall. But a single space serves all of those functions in director Yury Urnov’s bold and largely effective interpretation of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman.” The latest offering from Forum Theatre, this deliberately unsettling, immersive production unfurls in and around a kind of brutalist jail cell surrounded by rows of chairs and conference tables (the audience seating area). The cell is sometimes swathed in plastic sheeting that relays shadow-puppet silhouettes — shapes that evoke the macabre tales written by the play’s main character, Katurian.
A professedly apolitical resident of an unnamed totalitarian state, Katurian (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) has been arrested in connection with a series of grisly child murders, which appear to echo his stories. The threatening yet disconcertingly chatty security agents working the case, Detectives Tupolski (Jim Jorgensen) and Ariel (Bradley Foster Smith), have also detained the author’s mentally challenged older brother, Michal (James Konicek). As Katurian and the detectives engage in a battle of wills and wits, the investigation repeatedly touches on the writer’s stories, which include the mysterious “Tale of the Three Gibbet Crossroads,” the revenge fable “The Little Apple Men,” and the saga of the Pillowman, a sinister yet comforting being whose job is to enable suicides.
Chilling but funny, and powered by a sensationalist plot that speaks to the sheer power of storytelling, “The Pillowman” has always been a hugely watchable yet unnerving entertainment. This version, too, often artfully exploits the border area between humor, suspense and dread. Part of the credit goes to Ebrahimzadeh’s persuasive portrait of Katurian as a laid-back yet cocky working-class striver and to Konicek’s affecting turn as the alarmingly childlike Michal. The set, designed by Paige Hathaway, sounds an intriguingly ominous note right from the start.
With some productions of “The Pillowman” it has been possible to follow the story passively, as an uninvolved voyeur. That’s less the case here: Urnov’s staging tends to implicate the viewer. During the interrogation of Katurian, for instance, detectives Tupolski and Ariel bound in and out of the interrogation room, occasionally taking a seat at a conference table in the midst of the audience. As a result, it sometimes feels as if theatergoers, too, are deciding Katurian’s fate.
The production’s immersive touches are complemented by a very active — even frenetic — style of stage business that has the opposite of a lulling effect. While talking or listening to his brother, for instance, Michal sometimes skips or twirls, or clambers along the frame of the interrogation-room wall. In a break-the-fourth-wall directorial conceit, a scowling woman in a uniform (Emma Lou Hébert) prowls and supervises as the audience reads one of Katurian’s tales in printed-handout form.
This busy aesthetic sometimes proves distracting: A sequence that has Tupolski racing around, paper airplane in hand, does a disservice to the story the character is simultaneously telling. At other times, though, the production’s restless aesthetic seems shrewdly designed to keep the audience on tenterhooks, perhaps hinting at what it might be like to be a citizen of this authoritarian country, where the rule of law offers no assurance and arrest and execution are always looming possibilities.
This “Pillowman” would be a stronger show if Jorgensen and Smith took a more subtle approach to their comedy, which can verge on clowning. It also is a pity that designer Jason Arnold’s admittedly dramatic lighting, which often reproduces the effect of a single bulb dangling in an interrogation room, sometimes creates shadows that obscure facial expressions.
Such flaws notwithstanding, Urnov’s production will entertain and interest theatergoers who have seen “The Pillowman” before. And newcomers will find the show a compellingly funny and shiver-inducing testament to the power of the words “Once upon a time.”
Silver Spring Black Box Theater (formerly Round House Silver Spring), 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-8279. forum-theatre.org.
Dates: Through April 2.