“The Pillowman,” a 2003 play by Martin McDonagh, is a dark, dark comedy now showing at Tacoma Little Theatre under the directorship of jack-of-all-trades Blake R. York, who not only directed but also designed and built the set and did the graphic design for the production. Initially, the play comes across as a standard cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked political power in a police state. The protagonist, Katurian (Jacob Tice), a budding writer of macabre short stories, has been caught up — seemingly willy nilly — by the overzealous police who read suspicion everywhere. They are the minions of a police state in which everyone is presumed guilty until proven innocent.
Tupolski (Andrew Fry) and Ariel (Christian Carvajal) are the proverbial good cop and bad cop. You quickly get the picture that, in a society in which citizens have been stripped of their rights, any form of self-expression that attracts notice can be misinterpreted by those with power. Tupolski seems amiable and engaging while Ariel just wants to crack heads.
You very quickly realize, with a sickening sensation, that the situation is unlikely to end well for Katurian. The police have carte blanche to extract a confession of guilt by any means necessary. Getting a confession and then holding an execution are a foregone conclusion, unless something extraordinary happens.
Many of Katurian’s stories, which the audience receives second hand, are about children being brutalized by adults. The police appear to be interpreting the stories as metaphors for the power structure of the regime. The play’s title is derived from one of the stories-within-the-story, which Katurian tells during the course of things.
Katurian’s mentally challenged brother Michal (Sean Neely) has also been swept up in the police net that ransacked the house that the two share. All of the writer’s stories — his life’s work — have also been confiscated and are in a cardboard box, which almost becomes another cast member.
Katurian is tortured and then put into a cell with his brother. At this point, the script diverges from expectations and viewers are plunged into an uncertain emotional fog. As if playing the audience like a musical instrument, playwright McDonagh elicits sympathy that is directed at one character after the next. In the end, however, sympathy is set aside and there is nothing but sheer enjoyment of the gallows humor of it all, combined with a piqued curiosity to hear more of Katurian’s twisted fairy tales. Some of the latter are acted out by a shadow cast (consisting of Ellen Peters, Tim Takechi, Alexandria Bray and Nathaniel Walker), while the rest are disclosed via dialogue between the characters.
McDonagh is an Irish playwright who was born and raised in the United Kingdom (and has dual citizenship in UK and Ireland). “The Pillowman” was his first play that was not set in Ireland. Inspiration for the play comes partially from McDonagh’s realization of the darkness latent in the original versions of Grimm’s fairy tales. Early productions of “The Pillowman” won critical acclaim and garnered a number of awards. It has been produced in London, Paris, Lithuania, Iran, Ireland, Korea, Hong Kong, Argentina, Australia, Turkey and Italy. In the 2005 Broadway production, the role of Tupolski was played by none other than Jeff Goldblum. David Tennant played Katurian in the London production.
McDonagh has continued to write plays, but has also branched out into writing screenplays and directing movies. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which McDonagh wrote, produced and directed, made a big splash last year.
The cast of the TLT production is as solid as it gets. Tice is great in every role that he takes. His delivery is intelligently flawless. He fully embodies his roles. In “Pillowman,” he runs the gamut from abject fear to angry defiance to despair and, finally, resignation.
Neely is also great as the innocent that has committed brutal acts, unable to recognize right from wrong. There is never a moment when the role slips.
Fry, recently seen as a hilarious King Herod in the TLT production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” brings his good-natured persona to the story. But that is only the friendly face of another kind of cruelty. It is the happy countenance of the cat as it plays with a mouse.
Carvajal’s portrayal of Ariel, who initially comes across as a one-dimensional character, is dynamic. The character becomes a more complex and sympathetic figure towards the end of the play.
York’s set design, a soul-crushing jail cell made of grey brick with electrical conduits and security cameras, is set at an angle to the audience. The jail room can split in two and slide open to reveal the beautiful shadow performances when some of Katurian’s stories are told.
“The Pillowman” takes its audience on a wild ride. As an audience member, you spend the first act of the play mentally revisiting jail cells run by tyrants throughout time and leading up to the present moment. Much of the dialogue evokes the Nazi death camps. While the audience is being seated, Tice is already on the stage, sitting on the bed in the jail cell with a black hood over his head as he waits for his interrogation. The hood conjures images of the infamous, American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or of the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. One might also think of the privately run “detention facilities” where our fellows are taken when they are branded as illegal aliens and stripped of the rights that are guaranteed to citizens.
After that, however, the play shifts into something other than what is expected and then we are in the realm of literature and art. At that point, the story itself is memorable. And the horribly fascinating stories told within the overarching story remain with you with that persistence that fairy tales possess.
McDonagh achieves a rare feat in taking some of the darkest subjects imaginable and using them to extract laughter from the audience. We laugh at the character’s reactions to one another as they face an increasingly untenable situation. We laugh at the police and their disclosure of what their methods are. All of the characters are aware of the subtext of the dynamic at work and are able to engage on a humorous level with one another even as the machinery of brutality runs its course to its inevitable conclusion.
This brilliantly conceived play is brilliantly executed by the TLT cast and crew. This is a masterpiece of recent vintage that is highly recommended.
“The Pillowman” runs through May 6 with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and information call (253) 272-2281 or visit www.tacomalittletheatre.com.