I tried to interrogate a few of my own friends who'd already seen the play in New York, but there was an unexpected wall of silence on this one. And now that I've seen it I understand why: you feel guilt-stricken for saying that Pillowman is terrific. You feel almost as bad as Katurian (played by the fantastic Joseph Collins), the short-story writer who is the victim of a terrifying, unnamed condemnation in act one of Pillowman.
Years ago, my brother was a fan of horror movies and I recommended a David Cronenberg film for his appraisal. But, as movie critics will tell you, I probably crossed a line, taking him from the theatrical horror of Wes Craven into the realm of something like Videodrome, with its ultra-creepy sado-masochism. My brother, the horror-film buff, was appalled.
So at least I know not to recommend Pillowman to him, even though it's like some unimaginable collection of carnivorous bugs we might have found under a rock many years ago. Here, the Rep's Steven Woolf is directing, and gleefully turning up some very heavy rocks to open the second season of "Off Ramp" plays, for baby boomers and beyond.
Anderson Matthews and Paul DeBoy are Tupolski and Ariel, the police-state detectives who think Katurian is acting out the murders of the children in his own fiction. Mr. Matthews is dour and hilarious and Mr. DeBoy is out for blood. Both men establish a crushing sense of dread, with lots of help from Mr. Collins.
Katurian and Tupolski also pay tribute to that funny scene in Arsenic And Old Lace in which a policeman regales a captive writer with the details of a script he's written himself. And, like Cary Grant in that 1944 movie, a bloodied Mr. Collins can only sit there and endure Mr. Matthews' funny performance. But that's well into act two in this show, and by then we've forgotten all about nice old ladies and their mercy killings of lonely old men.
The title Pillowman comes from one of the short stories written by the main character, positing the deaths of children who would otherwise fall into lives of terrible pain and suffering later on. In that story, a man made out of pillows convinces those children to shuffle off this mortal coil before their torment begins. In the play, we shiver through verbal descriptions of horrible murders of children at the hands of someone well acquainted with Katurian's work.
The rest of the cast is very strong, and wacky in a breathtakingly dark sort of way. It's really not a play for young parents, or for young grandparents either. Hearing about the grisly fate of children is a bit like having a knife dragged across your living bones, again and again. For the childless among us, though, there is also a lot of fascinating "pinging" back and forth between reality and fiction, darkness and light, innocence and guilt. This is nicely highlighted by the eager and naive Timothy McCracken (as Katurian's retarded brother), who says 'I have trouble with opposites.' Pillowman is all about that kind of trouble, and how some people are drawn to it again and again.
The first-rate moving scenery is by Adrian W. Jones. As storybook backdrops slide back and forth in a curving frame, the silent supporting actors in those storybook vignettes establish a whimsical and foreboding mood.
Through October 8, 2006 at the Grandel Theater, a block north of the Fox Theatre on Grand Blvd. and just across from Powell Hall, in mid-town St. Louis. For information visit www.repstl.org or call (314) 968-4925.