Once upon a time, fairy tales were a great source of pleasure, poetry and principles for generations of young children. In recent decades, the Disneyfication of children’s stories has raised concerns that youngsters are getting no message at all or, worse, a blatantly commercial one.
Playwright Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” offers a different take on the worse case scenario – one that is grimmer than Grimm and, in the hands of convergence-continuum director Geoffrey Hoffman, thoroughly enthralling.
“The Pillowman” opens with the interrogation of Katurian (Tom Kondilas), a befuddled writer of nightmarish short stories, by two sadistic detectives (Robert Hawkes and Stuart Hoffman). It seems his stories bear a striking resemblance to the recent murders of several young children.
At issue is whether the writer’s fiction is inspiring readers to act or whether the fiction is inspired by the writer’s own actions. The writer’s mentally challenged brother, Michal (Daniel McElhaney), is being held as well, as a witness, potential suspect and as incentive to get a confession out of Katurian.
By siting this play in a nondescript totalitarian nation at a nonspecific time, McDonagh cleverly raises the stakes on what is truly at issue: That the pen is not only mightier than the sword, it is also double-edged. Free speech and unbridled artistic expression can generate stories that open or close minds, inspire or instigate behavior, and foster unity or induce chaos. Should it be curtailed? Controlled?
The stories in question are fairy tales that tend to feature child characters brutally mistreated by the adults they trust. By aiming these horrific stories at impressionable youngsters, McDonagh elevates our fleeting concern over the potential impact of storytelling to the front burner.
And because this play is a comedy, albeit a very dark one, all that is macabre in Katurian’s stories and maniacal in the detective’s cruel interrogation strategies is beautifully buffered by the sound of our own laughter.
Generating laughter in plays like this is hard, for darkness tends to get in the way of efforts to be lighthearted. But in “The Pillowman,” the path is cleared by crisp, razor-sharp dialogue layered with brilliant one-liners, gruesome stories entertainingly told by Katurian or cleverly enacted for our amusement, and engaging performances by each of the featured actors (including Nicole McLaughlin as the mother in the stories and Melissa Freilich as the child).
One scene in particular captures all of this.
Tupolski, the detective Hawkes plays, tells Katurian a story of his own creation – a truly terribly conceived tale about a deaf Chinese boy walking along the railroad tracks, oblivious to the oncoming train – of which he is particularly proud. Hawkes puts on display the well-crafted, unrelenting tension and absurd humor that all the con-con players have mastered and that designers Terrii Wachala (lighting), Clyde Simon (set and sound) and sade wolfkitten (costuming) accentuate. This scene and those that surround it make for wonderful theater.
The extreme intimacy of The Liminis Theatre performance space adds yet another interesting element to this production: no escape from the storytelling. Like Katurian under interrogation, his brother in the next room and the children in these stress fractured fairy tales, there is no way to avoid the things that go bang in the night.
WHAT: “The Pillowman”
WHERE: convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 18
TICKETS & INFO: $10 to $15. Call 216-687-0074 or visit convergence-continuum.org.