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Cool as the other side

The Pillowman is worth sinking into

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Chances are you will not see a local play this year as wickedly twisted or masochistically entertaining as Montana Rep Missoula’s season closer, The Pillowman. You probably also won’t see any contemporary one as well done, either.

It’s hard to decide where to start: appreciating the fact Martin McDonagh’s play—which won Britain’s Best New Play award after debuting in London in 2003 and hit Broadway two years later with a star-studded cast (Jeff Goldblum, Billy Crudup)—is being staged in Missoula so soon after its American premiere; wrapping one’s brain around such simultaneously dark and deliciously meaningful content, such as one scene where a cheery little girl who believes she’s Jesus is brutally crucified on stage (word of caution: definitely not kid’s fare); analyzing the abundance of implied meaning and social commentary embedded in an otherwise straightforward suspense thriller; or simply spouting off on how enjoyable it is to sit in a theater for three acts over the course of two quick hours, never quite sure of what could happen next—let alone the full extent of what just happened. The Pillowman offers all of this on a stylistic, in-your-face platter that, unless you leave the theater, is impossible to ignore. And it doesn’t just promise meaty philosophical post-show conversation or, perhaps, some controversy, but it does so while telling a provoking story. In fact, multiple stories.

The primary storyteller is Katurian Katurian Katurian (Andrew Rizzo), a dubiously named writer who’s penned 400 pieces of short fiction. The play opens with Katurian being interrogated by one dry-witted, cerebral detective, Tupolski (Don Fuhrmann), and his rabid partner, Ariel (Mike Verdon). There’s no such thing as habeas corpus here—the play is set in an unnamed totalitarian state—so Katurian is clueless as to why he’s being browbeaten over his writings. They aren’t about anything, he keeps imploring. Plus, only one has ever been published. But there’s one little problem: most of the stories involve young children being tortured or killed, and a string of local murders mimics Katurian’s prose.

Katurian’s stories are wonderfully vivid and fantastical tales, if not just a little morbid. Throughout the play he tells them with an overt sense of pride, assuming voices for each character and teasing the details as if he were in front of a classroom of cross-legged grade-schoolers. Katurian’s sense of showmanship, however, can also come off like habitual pomposity. He loves his work and defends it vigorously. He’s quick to correct Tupolski about which story is his best and argues with himself over whether another has that certain “something-esque” to it.

The only time during the interrogation Katurian interrupts his on-going self-pleasure is when he learns his brother Michal (Mike Boire), who’s a little slow, is also being questioned in the next room. Katurian loves his brother almost as much as his work, and he’s instantly protective. From there the interrogation burrows into layer upon layer of seedy backstory, and each layer’s consequently uncomfortable discovery.

It’s not a pretty story, but The Pillowman is frighteningly well connected, taut and teeming with dark comedy. A lot of the credit for this rests in the hands of director Bobby Gutierrez. A veteran of MRM’s riskier productions—including the absurd Betty’s Summer Vacation and sci-fi thriller Bug—Gutierrez often jokes that he’s only asked to do the weird stuff. What gets lost in that self-deprecation is he’s really good at making them more than just weird. That’s never more apparent than in The Pillowman, where the overall production—featuring original sound by John Sporman and a stage that reinvents the usually static Crystal Theatre setup—casts an appropriately surreal feel, and the humor and horror come in equal portions.

Gutierrez also has the benefit of an outstanding cast. Rizzo holds court as Katurian, his dialogue with the two cops especially crisp and the best part of the play. Fuhrman possesses the perfect sardonic demeanor for Tupolski—similar in many ways to his role in Psychopathia Sexualis last year—and Verdon’s Ariel is downright terrifying. With the latter’s shaved head and propensity for flying off the handle, his bulging cranial veins do as much physical acting as the rest of his body combined. Boire’s part is smaller as Michal, but his general naïveté and love for Katurian is essential to the play’s pivotal second act.

The Pillowman is better the less you know going in—and nothing here reveals the biggest surprises or most bizarre secrets. It isn’t for everyone, sure—R-rated talk of dead kids has a way of turning some people off—but even a smidgen of curiosity should draw theatergoers. The reason is McDonagh’s play isn’t sensational purely for the sake of headlines, isn’t risqué in lieu of being substantive, and, unlike a lot of local theater, isn’t more daring than it is good. The Pillowman needs no qualifiers: it’s the best, most challenging play of the season.

The Pillowman
continues through Sunday, March 18, and again Tuesday, March 20, through Saturday, March 24, at the Crystal Theatre at 8 PM. $15.

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