Wry wit marks dark ‘Pillowman’

Martin McDonagh is not capable of telling a simple story. In “The Pillowman,” his prowess for exploring dark layers of the human conscience is revealed through Katurian, who is being interrogated for murders that resemble the tales he has penned.

Bravo to Quixotic Theatre, an emerging company with the stated goal to explore “the darker side of the human psyche.” Mission accomplished. It has assembled an A-1 cast and created a haunting prison scene in the intimate UpStage space. This is black humor of the darkest kind: well written, well acted and disturbing, even when it makes you chuckle.

McDonagh, who was born in England to Irish parents, sets most of his plays in Ireland. “The Pillowman” occurs in a totalitarian state. It must, for a man to be arrested on no other evidence than the similarity of his plots to a pair of recent murders. Woven into the play are retellings of stories Katurian has written, all of which feature children who meet untimely deaths that end the torture of their earthly lives.

“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,” Katurian tells his interrogators. “We can draw our own conclusions,” one of them replies. That is why this is a writer’s play; it defends the right to create, despite the reader’s reactions to those words.

Given the subject matter, the actors’ abilities to mine the script’s sporadic humor are laudable. Daniel O’Sullivan plays Katurian, who has written 400 stories since the age of 14. His craft is the most important thing in his life, and his muse came to him at great cost. Christopher Herring is fantastic as his mentally compromised brother Michal.

Promises are made and retracted. Truths revealed lead to dismay. Each new disclosure causes the characters to reinterpret what they thought they knew, which leads to deep questions. What does it mean to be compassionate in the face of horror? Is expression through words enough, or does action have to follow?

Katurian’s two interrogators, Devin Clark’s good cop Tupolski and Joseph Watson’s bad cop Ariel, find the balance that makes a disparate partnership work. The cast is completed by Janine Atkinson and Grant Watkins with cameos as Katurian’s parents. Leslie Ann Giles plays an almost silent depiction of an abuse victim yet retains an enlightened stage presence.

The intermittent recitation of Katurian’s stories imbues the play with the richness of a well-crafted anthology. It’s unusual for such a density of themes to coincide successfully. They include love, freedom of speech, professional success and criminal justification, to name a few.

Director Sean Kimbro ensures that the actors don’t waste a move and utilizes the cozy space to his advantage. Details are well done. The blood and bruises are realistic. Bad cop Ariel is impeccably dressed as a jackbooted thug, complete with brass knuckles. Musical interludes are haunting lullabies that foreshadow and reinforce the importance of parental influence on the hearts and minds of children.