The audience is seated and the house lights dim. That’s where anything remotely expected ends because the play is Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman and the theatre company is the Flying H Group. Nothing is what it seems. No one can be trusted, and the things that go bump in the night haunt you long after the lights come back on. Beautifully written by a master of black comedy, The Pillowman is not your average night at the theater, which makes it a must-see for anyone who wants to be unnerved, riveted and, oh yes, terrified.
Set in a totalitarian state, the play’s central character is Katurian (Eric Mello), a writer who is being interrogated about brutal child murders that mirror the gruesome content in his stories. Katurian’s jailers are the cerebral Tupolski (Kathleen Bosworth) and the brutish Ariel (Cynthia Killion). Their verbal sparring is sharp, quick and surprisingly funny as the detectives run through the crimes and Katurian does his best to defend himself and his art. The detectives try to coerce a confession by any means, including threatening Katurian’s simple-minded brother Michal (Michael Wayne Beck).
As the play travels from the interrogation room to a prison cell and across Katurian’s graphic memories and imagination, it raises questions that unravel into more questions. Just when you think you have it figured out, the play wriggles out of any explanation you could try to pin on it. It’s as Katurian says, “It’s a puzzle without a solution.” Director Taylor Kasch states that the play is about “the purpose of art.” Perhaps it’s also about the art of storytelling and the purpose of the storyteller. In the end, interpretation is up to the individual — a hallmark of any great work of art.
In its Broadway production, The Pillowman utilized elaborate sets and big-name stars. Kasch, who also created the light, sound and set design, doesn’t need any of that. He has a fierce and talented cast and his own fearless vision. First, he seats the audience around the action, so that we feel like flies on the wall. Then McDonagh’s spiky, lurid work comes to life with little more than simple yet disturbing props and the cast’s unwavering dedication to the material. Costumes, created by Brenda Evans, perfectly enhance the characters’ identities. Shocking sound effects and creepy songs plunge you into the darkest of worlds — namely your own fears.
Eric Mello captures Katurian’s naiveté and egotism as well as his psychosis. In roles originally created for men, Kathleen Bosworth and Cynthia Killion bring a barbed-wired humanity to police detectives who have their own skeletons in hiding. Bosworth lithely dances between the comic and tragic. Killion transforms herself into an enforcer who flashes menace, humor and sympathy. As Michal, Beck so fully embodies a man/child/monster that Michael elicits both laughs and shudders, often in the same breath.
With its graphic imagery (both real and imagined) of horrific crimes, The Pillowman will be too disturbing for some. But for those who want to dive into the darkness, it will be an unforgettable experience that will leave them shaken, wide awake and pondering fundamental questions. Probably with the lights on.
The Pillowman runs through June 5 at Flying H Group Theatre Company, 6368 Bristol Road, Ventura. For more information, call 901-0005 or visit www.flyinghgroup.com.