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Martin McDonagh's harrowing psychological drama argues that writers remain responsible to their society: responsible for the impact their works ultimately have, and responsible for the problems they create.

Theatre in the Park's merciless and provocative Pillowman 

From left: Michael Brocki, Ira David Wood IV and Tony Pender in "The Pillowman"

Photo by Stephen J. Larson/ Theatre in the Park

From left: Michael Brocki, Ira David Wood IV and Tony Pender in "The Pillowman"

Katurian, the writer, is in a world of trouble. He's cooperated with Tupolski and Ariel, the gruff operatives who've abducted and brought him to this windowless interrogation room, but all his efforts have earned him thus far is a broken nose and a mild concussion. His attempts to accommodate their questions only enrage his captors more: After yanking Katurian up by his shirt, Detective Tupolski flings him against a filing cabinet, softens him up with a few more blows to the midsection and propels him across a gray metal conference table. After that, the detective says, "Oh, I forgot to mention: I'm the good cop. He's the bad cop."

In the second regional production of Martin McDonagh's harrowing 2003 psychological drama, The Pillowman, director Ira David Wood III leaves little to the imagination when it comes to how an unnamed modern-day totalitarian regime enforces its edicts—and expresses its displeasure. A generous amount of humor, much of it dark, leavens the relentlessness of the proceedings. But under Wood's direction, actors Tony Pender and Michael Brocki give full-velocity—and, we should note, realistically violent—performances as Tupolski and Ariel, while Ira David Wood IV's work effectively evinces the trauma and intimidation visited upon his character, Katurian.

But as the script develops, McDonagh drives the familiar trope of state censorship further and further into terra incognita. For it isn't Katurian's political views that have landed him in hot water with the authorities. It's the eerie similarities a series of recent child abductions and murders in the region have had with the plots in several of his decidedly gruesome short stories, instead. In short, someone's a copycat. And the cops think they already know who.

Moral ambiguity and nihilism are both vended by the pound in much of serious contemporary literature (including a number of McDonagh's earlier works). But in The Pillowman's critique of what's termed the "fashionably downbeat" in writing, the playwright argues that writers remain responsible to their society: responsible for the impact their works ultimately have, and responsible for the problems they create.

What is the appropriate ethical stance for horror writers—or filmmakers like Mark Olexik, whose grotesque, sepia-toned videos effectively punctuate the live action in this production—in a culture where a small but dangerous minority may well interpret their work as an instruction manual or list of protocols? What's the appropriate penalty for a creator whose violent visions give them the inspiration to commit atrocity?

This version of The Pillowman gives these and related questions a merciless grilling, in a provocative production that earns our highest recommendation.

This article appeared in print with the headline "There will be blood."

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