Theatre Coup d’Etat’s “The Pillowman” opens with a man sitting center stage in a black hood. It’s an image calculated to conjure unsettling parallels: extraordinary renditions, extreme interrogations, public executions. At the very least, it signals that nothing pretty lies ahead.
Not that we need much warning. Award-winning Irish playwright, screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh has built his reputation on an ability to juxtapose extremes of brutal violence and razor-edge wit to masterful effect. From the casual cruelty of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” to the bleakly hilarious despair of “In Bruges” and the propulsive rage of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDonagh finds ever more creative ways to drive his characters to the edge of a moral abyss so we can watch them try to talk their way back. And talk they do, in rat-a-tat-tat exchanges and marvelously profane and profound introspections.
The hooded man (Corey DiNardo) is revealed to be a writer with the unlikely name Katurian Katurian Katurian (“My parents were funny people”). He’s been brought in by the police because his gruesome short stories bear curious similarities to a spate of horrific child murders. While he’s being interrogated by two detectives — Ariel (James Napoleon Stone) and Tupolski (Tyler Stamm) — his developmentally delayed brother Michal (Song Kim) awaits his turn in the next room.
The action plays out on a bare stage. An ominous offstage voice intones orders and regulations, punctuated by muffled screams and moans. A textured and distressed backdrop transforms at key moments into an arena for shadow puppets who act out some of the most graphic details of Katurian’s stories. Stamm’s “good cop” presents a veneer of coolly civilized curiosity, while Stone’s “bad cop” paces the stage with a consuming rage that occasionally spills into uncontrolled violence.
The dynamic of the interrogation stands in stark contrast to the painfully tender scenes between Katurian and his brother. DiNardo ably communicates the complex mixture of guilt and responsibility Katurian brings to this relationship, while Song imbues his role with wide-eyed, amoral innocence.
Director Rich Remedios and his competent cast keep this production unpredictable every step of the way, lending it palpable intimacy. Katurian may be labeled the writer, with 400 grisly little fairy tales to his credit, but everyone in this play is a storyteller. Their unreliable narratives toy with the truth as they peel back layers of generational suffering and unresolved grief.
“The Pillowman” isn’t for everyone, but if you can handle your fairy tales served up with meat cleavers, razor blades and existential angst, this compelling and confrontational production delivers a visceral punch.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.
What: Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Rich Remedios. Produced by Theatre Coup D’Etat.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and Mon. Ends July 20.
Where: SpringHouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th St., Mpls.
Tickets: $18-$40, theatrecoupdetat.com.