Pillow talk

Storytelling makes for gripping theater in Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman
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The cold air these last weeks has played foul-weather friend to a couple chilling stage stories about serial child killers — one of them is even called Frozen. Both were recently toasts of Broadway too, though only one includes scary little apple men (not to mention the titular figure of a giant fellow made of soft cushions). This latter would be The Pillowman, of course, by Irish wunderkind Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore), which makes its local debut at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a very strong, utterly engaging production directed by Les Waters.

The theme of child murders aside, the two plays (which opened on consecutive nights) couldn't be further apart. In fact, that very theme is a source of dispute and humor in McDonagh's hilarious, eerie, and strictly macabre comedy set in a gritty police station–cum–torture chamber in an unnamed totalitarian country (the fine set, a simple but highly atmospheric take on old-world contemporary, is by Antje Ellermann, with sharply complimentary lighting by Russell H. Champa). Here a prolific but largely unrecognized writer named Katurian Katurian Katurian (Erik Lochtefeld) — a stubbornly emphatic name that's like an engine that won't turn over and maybe a bit sinister too, like the clang of a railway car with no windows — has been hauled in for some very rough questioning following a string of child murders whose gory details mimic the content of several of his generally ghastly stories.

Katurian and older brother Michal (Matthew Maher) — whose mental disability keeps him squarely in the role of Katurian's charge and whom the police keep initially in a separate room down the hall for some questioning at the hands of a bulldog cop named Ariel (Andy Murray) — find themselves in a ghastly little story of their own, threatened with impending execution should the interrogation, led by the somewhat wry Inspector Tupolski (Tony Amendola), not go in their favor. But then, their backstory is, we learn, already quite ghastly, making the writer's ghoulish tales seem all the more meaningful as a necessary escape from childhood horrors and the inevitable vehicle of the Katurian brothers' worming segue into adulthood.

The Pillowman, however, ultimately has nothing to do with the kind of social, psychological, moral, and forensic themes brought up by Frozen playwright Bryony Lavery in her secularizing examination of sin and forgiveness. (Frozen runs through Feb. 11 at the Marin Theatre Company; see stage listings for information and the review). Instead, it has everything to do with the art, the incandescent allure, even the vital necessity of simply telling stories for their own sake. As such, its primary purpose is to grip the audience by the story-hungry throat, a feat it manages expertly and with a dreamlike complexity, merging one story into another.

Life and art come hopelessly entangled here, though just which is imitating which is hard to say. After the wily Tupolski (played by Amendola with wonderful humor and nuance like a Stalinist version of Barney Miller) synopsizes one of Katurian's bleak parablelike tales, for instance, a self-satisfied Katurian savors it by absently applying the term "somethingesque" to its construction. Sure enough, our own Mr. K's story is strikingly Kafkaesque, and so is the predicament such tales have landed him in.

These ironies and nuances come over without the least bit of pretension, however. They're just part of the grimly comic nightmare director Waters and his cast unfold with unflinching panache.

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