Once upon a time, there was a writer named Katurian who fleshed out his own history of abuse by penning dark tales. These narratives were not for the weak of heart as they often involved horrible things happening to innocent and trusting children. Perhaps the only thing this author loved more than his own stories was his mentally afflicted brother. Together, they lived in obscurity until a series of brutal child murders resulted in the brothers being interrogated by two cops (one bad, the other worse). The exact setting here is a bit cloudy but the electrodes and screams of the damned suggest that these two men are living in a police state.
It would be an understatement to say this play is not for everyone. Written by Irish-British playwright Martin McDonagh, “The Pillowman” is in part a unique meditation on an artist’s responsibility to always tell his or her perceived truth. This is accomplished in large part by lovingly recreating the author’s stories through simple means such as paper dolls mounted on popsicle sticks. In this way, the retellings often perfectly capture the sheer beauty and vulnerability of youth. Which then makes the sudden injection of violence and sadness all the more disturbing.
There is also commentary on the toil everyone—interrogator and criminal alike—experiences while living in a totalitarian state. The interrogators themselves appear more world-weary than out of control, with the cool calculating menace of lead detective Tupolski (Cyd Blakewell) especially intriguing. Playing opposite her is the policeman Ariel (Gregory Fenner) who excuses his own propensity to violence as a necessary trait for keeping children safe. But it is Martel Manning as the author Katurian who keeps the production centered and moving forward. Director Laura Alcalá Baker makes no compromises with the material and the production. While not always pretty, it is impossible to look away.
At the same time, the recurring themes of children being harmed makes the two-and-a-half-hour running time oppressive. Not every story told works either. The final one, a confusing, drawn-out tale presented like a word problem on a dry-erase board, is especially difficult to digest. Again, this production is not for everyone. But there is enough intellectual gristle to chew on to make this production worthy of your time. (Noel Schecter)
The Gift Theatre, 4802 North Milwaukee, (773)283-7071, thegifttheatre.org, $40-$50. Through March 29.