Intense, disturbing and sometimes comical production

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Gordon Jones
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‘The Pillowman,’ which is well acted, is not for the faint of heart

Who or what, you might ask, is “The Pillowman,” the title of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s play, first staged in London in 2003.

“The Pillowman,” it emerges, is a nine-foot-high fantasy figure, built out of pink pillows, who lures unsuspecting children and regressed adults into committing suicide to avoid the pains of future life.

In a mid-European city, in an unnamed totalitarian state, two police detectives, Tupolski (Aiden Flynn) and Ariel (Steve O’Connell), are interrogating a nervous author of often-macabre children’s stories in a starkly furnished interview room.

Plots of some of his stories anticipate real-life cases of child-murder, murders to which the writer’s retarded brother, himself abused as a child, has confessed.

Bad cop O’Connell’s Ariel is hectoring and physical. Profanities beginning with F are the principal instruments in his interrogative toolbox. Flynn’s good cop, Tupolski, is self-possessed and cerebral — but also able to raise the stakes as required.

Burdened by his parents with the name of Katurian K. Katurian, the author (Darren Ivany) writes bizarre and often violent fairy-tales about bullied and mistreated children.

The police have the manuscripts of his stories, all but one of which remain unpublished: a boy has toes chopped off (which are gruesomely displayed), a girl is force-fed apples containing razor blades, another girl is crucified and then buried alive.

Intent on determining whether the writer has incited or is complicit in serial murders echoing his stories, the two detectives grill Katurian and his brother, Michal, in separate cells.

In the second scene, the brothers are locked up together, discussing the missing children and the abusiveness of their own parents.

And slow-witted Michal (Michael Rhodri Smith) graphically describes how he murdered and mutilated children in imitation of his brother’s stories, so as to test how far-fetched the narratives were.

Finally, having smothered his brother to death, Katurian confesses to all that he and they are accused of doing, in the hope that his unpublished stories will not be destroyed.

Did one of them do it? Did both? Did either?

The company’s news release promotes McDonagh’s play as black comedy at its darkest. Darkest, certainly, but dialogue and interactions generate scattered laughter, as well as interrupted breathing.

“The Pillowman” is an intense and sometimes disturbing theatrical experience, though not without a modicum of comic effect, some of it generated by avalanches of profanity.

“The Pillowman” may not be for the over-sensitive theatregoer. But the powerfully acted and delivered production, with violence interspersed with reflectiveness and quiet moments, is gripping and, ultimately, satisfying.

Capably directed by Courtney Brown, who skilfully orchestrates and mediates violence and stillness, the Rabbittown Theatre Company’s production of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s disturbing story of fairy tales and child murder features a powerful cast of Flynn and O’Connell as the two detectives, Ivany and Rhodri Smith in the roles of the writer and his brother, and Emily Locke, who doubles as a feisty little girl and a crazily abusive mother.

Following on the heels of “A Steady Rain,” this is the second police-procedural gig undertaken by O’Connell and Flynn, to which they take, in contrastive personae, like ducks to water. Perhaps they should consider patenting police-procedurals.

“The Pillowman” continues its four-day run in the Barbara Barrett Theatre in the basement of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre until Sunday, with a 2 p.m. matinee as well as an 8 p.m. show on the final day.

Including a 15-minute intermission, running time is 140 minutes.

Organizations: Rabbittown Theatre Company, Barbara Barrett Theatre

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