Among the many fears that afflict fiction writers is the fear that they might one day be held accountable for all of the perverse, diabolical things their imagination has conjured. Stephen King has had plenty of fun wrestling with this demon, and Frank Theatre’s latest play—The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio—has more twisted glee at a writer’s expense than even King could ever imagine.
Jim Lichtscheidl plays Katurian, a writer who has been detained for questioning by police in a nameless totalitarian state. When the police officers (played brilliantly by Luverne Seifert and Chris Carlson) begin their interrogation, Katurian professes to be nothing but a humble storyteller. He has no idea why he is being questioned, except for the dimmest inkling that it might have something to do with his stories, which happen to involve lots of maimed and murdered children.
You’ll get no more plot details from me, because I don’t want to spoil the fun (though people with more delicate sensibilities might have a different word for it). The Pillowman is one of those dark, disturbing plays that pulls off the neat trick of mining its own inherent tension for lots of laughs. In style and tone, it’s an amusing cross between Harold Pinter, Franz Kafka, Law & Order, and Fellini—a clever whodunit with just enough literary and theatrical heft to make you think seriously about some of the issues it raises about free speech, modern parenting, cycles of abuse, and the role of stories in a politically repressive environment.
Frank Theatre director Wendy Knox often tackles projects that are long on spectacle and short on plot, but The Pillowman is precisely the opposite—a taut, well-acted play that fits the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio space perfectly. In lead roles, both Lichtscheidl and Seifert turn in bravura performances—particularly Seifert, whose unnerving but hilarious detective Tupolski keeps things off balance just enough to creep you out while you’re laughing at everything he says.
Appearing in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio is an important step up for Frank Theatre, which often has to make do with makeshift spaces—such as abandoned grain factories—that aren’t exactly ideal for theater. The artistic stamp of approval on Frank’s work is well-deserved, and in The Pillowman those who haven’t experienced Frank in action have an excellent opportunity to see why Knox is one of the most versatile, interesting directors around. She just knows how to make a play work—and my advice is to get over to the Guthrie and let her work work on you.
The Pillowman plays the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio through October 14.