The Pillowman (with John Tyson, Rick Stear 
    and David Rainey) is brutally funny and terribly sad all 
    at once.
The Pillowman (with John Tyson, Rick Stear and David Rainey) is brutally funny and terribly sad all at once.
T. Charles Erickson

Soft as a Razor Blade

Once upon a time, before TV and videos stoppered up our collective imagination, we sat around our fires telling stories. They were often dark and lurid: Ravenous wolves stalked lost girls into the dark woods, and hideous witches gleefully roasted runaways in their ovens.

In Martin McDonagh's exhilarating new play The Pillowman, now playing at the Alley Theatre, a character named Katurian has an affinity for those old-timey yarns. In fact, throughout the three-act play, he tells several of his own grisly tales, each as horrifying as anything from the Grimm brothers. Katurian's stories pull you to the edge of your seat even as you recoil at the dreadfulness of it all. Each involves some extreme act of violence (just imagine what terrors a handful of razor blades can inflict), and all claim children as their victims.

No wonder the police have taken the young writer into custody. After all, the neighborhood kids have started showing up dead, and it couldn't be just a coincidence that they've all been murdered in the uniquely terrible ways described in Katurian's stories. Anybody would be suspicious of the soft-eyed young man who loves nothing more than the cardboard box full of horror stories he's written through the years. Throw in the fact that Katurian (Rick Stear) works in a slaughterhouse by day (a job that he says is actually not so bad), and it really does seem like the authorities might have one sick puppy on their hands -- doe-eyed though he may be.


The Pillowman

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421

Through February 26. $41-$46.

The play follows Katurian as he's questioned about the murders. We first meet him blindfolded at a station house in a fictional totalitarian state. In a dull room with filing cabinets and hard chairs, he's questioned with ruthless persistence by two men who like nothing more than extracting -- by any means available -- the nasty truth from alleged evildoers.

Detective Tupolski (John Tyson) is a bitter, angry, darkly funny, philosophical thug of a cop, who enjoys humiliating Katurian. The lawman lies, teases and shames the writer, laughing at his stories and making promises he never plans to keep. He also seems to enjoy his partner, Ariel (David Rainey) -- the sort of psycho-cop who thrills at the chance to torture Katurian, pummeling him with fists, then hooking his extremities to a battery to shock the truth out of him. Ironically, these cops are as brutal as any of the characters in Katurian's tales.

Eventually, we learn that in the room next door sits Michal (Jeffrey Bean), Katurian's brain-damaged brother. Michal's presence is the only thing that truly scares Katurian, for he is, literally, his brother's keeper. They've been on their own since their parents' untimely deaths years earlier. When Katurian hears screams coming from the room next door, he's terrified to his core.

We also learn some of what motivates the violence in these characters' souls. It turns out that each has an unhappy story of his own to tell. And as we learn, unhappy boys grow up to be awful men.

This psychologically haunting play manages to be both brutally funny and terribly sad all at once. But the extraordinary complexities and nuances woven into every line might be lost were it not for the powerhouse of talent stalking the stage in the Alley's production. Tyson is as good as he's ever been in the role of Tupolski. Sorrowful yet utterly hateful, his detective manages to make us laugh even as we despise him. Even more confounding is the way Tyson makes our hearts ache when we learn about what motivates his own cruelty. One can't help but cringe at the pain slicing through the meanness in his soul.

Rainey's Ariel is a lumpish lout who swaggers and rails against everything that gets in his way. Unable to articulate anything but the most basic of feelings, he's nobody you'd want to meet in a dark alley. It really doesn't matter which side of the law he's on -- he's a bad man who wants to believe he's good.

Bean's Michal is a startlingly rich tour de force of a performance. Michal is brain-damaged, but he's also clever enough to deliver a good joke. He hobbles around the stage with his twisted hands and his blinking eye, troubled by an "itchy ass" and a devastating history.

And at the center of all this broken humanity is Katurian, the writer, who is, as Stear plays him, stunningly sweet, especially given the menacing stories clattering around his young mind. For all the murder and mayhem he and his tales seem responsible for, he is, at his core, a heartbreakingly moving man.

These actors have been directed by Gregory Boyd with punch and muscle. The Alley's Neuhaus stage expands under Boyd's vision, and The Pillowman, despite its depravity and violence, manages to celebrate the rich red blood of imagination coursing through the center of the human heart -- even as it chills us down deep into the bone.


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