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The Pillowman

A brutally dark comedy explores artistic oppression in violent, unpredictable fashion

The Pillowman’s gallows humor and shocking violence is not for the feint of heart. Photo credit Dennis K Photography

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Before you've even begun to formally experience the performance of Tacoma Little Theatre's production of The Pillowman, you must first find your seat. As you do, you will notice a man onstage, sitting in a drab cell, with a black hood over his head. The sensation of the audience finding their bearings and casually chatting with each other clashes uneasily with the image of a man clearly in trouble, locked away and dehumanized; it's a handy preview for the blackly comic tone of the play to come.

The Pillowman premiered in 2003, written by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who's since become something of a dab hand at making unpredictable, violent, and frequently very funny films. Notably, his screenplays for In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, were nominated for Oscars. Beyond recurring themes such as suicide, self-mythologizing, sudden violence, and meta commentary on the nature of storytelling itself, McDonagh delights in offbeat, Tarantino-esque characters that are given to monologues. Such is also the case with The Pillowman, but its solitary setting and reverence for the written word encourages this verbosity.

That man with the hood is Katurian (Jacob Tice), a writer of fairy tales that frequently involve the terrible lives and deaths of children. He's being held by Tupolski (Andrew Fry) and Ariel (Christian Carvajal who, full disclosure, also writes for this paper), two officers in a totalitarian state who don't hesitate to beat confessions out of their prisoners. Katurian's reason for imprisonment is revealed gradually, though it has to do with the deaths of some local kids, and perhaps with the government's objections to his writing. Katurian's mentally disabled brother Michal (Sean Neely) is also at risk of being implicated in this inquiry. To say much more would risk spoiling the twisty narrative.

Over the course of this two-and-a-half hour play, many people will be tortured, and not just Katurian. McDonagh's most prominent calling card - vividly illustrated in the praise, and subsequent decrying, of Three Billboards - is his wily, abstruse tone. The Pillowman invites you to laugh at the death of children, to sympathize with blithely vicious government thugs, and to question whether an artist has any responsibility over his ideas. The show has no easy answers; savagery, bigotry, and bleak comedy pervade the stacked running time, but so do fine performances that hone a razor's edge to material that would fail without profoundly competent actors delivering it. Tice, Neely, Fry, and Carvajal are all superb in the task of delivering reams of dialogue that is, at times, challenging to hear, let alone say. 

This is a play for adults -- and a thrillingly risky one for TLT to put up before their 100th season. Director Blake R. York gives us respite via fairy tales told in beautifully stark silhouette, which both softens and heightens the blow of the horrific stories being portrayed. For all the blood that may be spilled in the telling of The Pillowman, much of it remains in our heads. And I think it may stay there for a long time after.

THE PILLOWMAN,7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through May 6, $20-$24, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281,

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