Also see Susan's review of Doubt
The Studio Theatre in Washington continues its success with the work of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh with a superb production of The Pillowman. The confines of the intimate Metheny Theatre add to the claustrophobic atmosphere of McDonagh's 2005 play about the power of words and the imagination.
The playwright leaves the rural Irish setting of his earlier works to set The Pillowman in an unidentified, vaguely eastern European state under totalitarian rule. Police officers Tupolski (Denis Arndt), the older, philosophical one, and Ariel (Hugh Nees), the brutal one, have brought in Katurian (Tom Story), a struggling writer, and his mentally impaired brother, Michal (Aaron Muñoz), for reasons they at first won't disclose.
The nature of the investigation turns on the content of Katurian's stories, many of which include nightmare-inducing descriptions of pain and torture inflicted both on and by children. The police see similarities between the stories and several recent crimes, and they're determined to find the connection between fiction and fact.
"The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story," Katurian says, and his words come to life as he speaks them. The fascination of the drama, well understood by director Joy Zinoman, is the way life and art feed on each other in this world, and how a fictional universe can ultimately affect the real future.
The characterizations are incisive and surprising. Story makes Katurian impassioned yet young and still rather innocent of political intrigue; Muñoz, round-faced and chubby, has an openness and guilelessness that both helps and hurts him, and they offer the unforced interplay of two brothers who have shared their years of suffering. The bond between the police officers is also interesting: Arndt is the more outwardly polished, Nees more the attack dog, but neither is exactly what he appears to be.
Debra Booth's scenic design brings the audience into a grim, windowless cell with metal walls that reverberate when the police slam the door (Gil Thompson has created a deeply evocative sound design). The landscape changes, however, when Katurian's stories take the stage, by turns to a nightmarish land of shadows and a blinding white world of billowing curtains and air.