From the first cave drawings to the finale of The Sopranos, humans have found definition in the stories we tell to ourselves and to one another. And while we're each the hero of our own particular tale, it's always a shock when we catch a glimpse into the role we play in others' narratives: the jerk, the dimwit, perhaps even the criminal. In Martin McDonagh's scathing and invigorating The Pillowman, telling (or living) the wrong story can be fatal.
The action opens with Katurian (Jim Lichtscheidl) at a police station. Living in a totalitarian society, Katurian normally spends his days sweeping up blood and guts at an abattoir, looking after his mentally disabled brother Michal (Grant Richey), and writing short stories by the score (only one of which has been published). The rub? His stories are startlingly bleak and gory, often featuring baroque violence against children. Now a couple of kids have turned up dead in ways that match the content of Katurian's fiction, a fact not lost on the authorities.
Good cop, bad cop: Lichtscheidl with interrogators Carlson and Seifert
McDonagh's antagonists are policemen Tupolski (Luverne Seifert) and Ariel (Chris Carlson). Seifert sports a chilling smile, while the seething Carlson displays a comb-over that itself verges on the criminal. Their characters seem all too aware of their fictional status; after Ariel lets loose with invective and threats against Katurian, Tupolski wryly intones, "I almost forgot to mention I'm the good cop. He's the bad cop."
McDonagh has created an exquisite intellectual comedy from what follows, much of which hinges on twists that would be unfair to reveal. This Frank Theatre production under Wendy Knox's direction distinguishes itself by playing against type. Most of the cast members are gifted comedic actors, but nowhere do we see attempts to reach for the easy laugh. By dialing back on comedic technique, Knox has cleverly staged a show that relies on dialogue for slow-burn moments of humor that twist and turn in the mind—and eventually leave one oddly unconcerned about the rightness or wrongness of what's so amusing amid a general air of degradation and horror.
An interpolated story, for instance, called "The Writer and His Brother" (recited to great effect by Lichtscheidl), involves beatings and power-drill torture against a (for the moment) fictional child. Here it's acted out as a fairy tale behind glass, a story of one child privileged and another tormented, for entirely arbitrary reasons (yet performed with antic glee).
And here's the heart of the piece. It's a story about stories, but never are we led to believe that any of our tales are going to save us from a cruel and rapacious world. For Katurian, his twisted fiction made his life a little better for a while, got him into awful trouble, and eventually became the only thing he had left to care about. In the same way, we all cling tight to our own fables and tales—it's not as though they're going to make everything all right, but with any luck they'll ease the sting in the interim before fate decides it's time for our personal denouement. Things would be so drab otherwise.