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Pillowman

If you think you've got Martin McDonagh's number, you're wrong. While the inimitable un-playwright's seven powerful plays were written within a period of nine months beginning when he was 24 years old, the Pillowman, now running at the Denver Center Theatre Company, reveals a perspective that one would expect from a wizened middle-aged writer, not a fresh-faced young man.

Known for his penchant for violence bordering on the gratuitous, McDonough shows us that he can laugh at his own indulgences and answer what must be described, given his unknown status when he wrote this, as his premonitory inkling of his critics themes.

Scott Ferrara as Katurian
Scott Ferrara as Katurian
Photo: Terry Shapiro
This self-knowledge makes a case for his greatest strength, for it holds him to the truth of his work like a possessed slave driver. In the case of Pillowman, this means absolute adherence to the rigors of his muscular imagination and the dynamics of the characters derived therefrom.

Director Anthony Powell takes what could be a difficult and unruly tale and explicates it like a master psychotherapist, deftly laying bare the playwright's thematic arcs with a surprisingly sympathetic combination of magic and realism, getting a stellar assist from Lisa M. Orzolek's contrasting clinical and fantastic scenic design, accented by Christine Dougherty's costumes, Jane Spencer's lighting, and Iæden Hovorka's sound design and compositions.

(Left to Right) David Ivers as Michal and Scott Ferrara as Katurian
(L to R) David Ivers as Michal
and Scott Ferrara as Katurian
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Katurian and Michal are brothers who run afoul of two self-righteous cops in the employ of a fascist state somewhere in the present. Katurian is a storyteller of fabulous, but dark, tales in the tradition of the original Brothers Grimm, where bad ends await unlucky children. He is adored by the brain-damaged Michal who thrives on his stories.

Scott Ferrara wows us as Katurian K. Katurian, the author's Kafkaesque stand-in, with his dramatic timing and expressive modulations, as he weaves story after story that, remarkably, McDonagh has hung together into a cohesive plot. Behind all this invention, though, is Katurian's devotion to the writer's cross—serving the truth of one's stories regardless of the consequences. Here, Ferrara holds steady, thereby fortifying the redemption of the final scene.

Lawrence Hecht as Tupolski
Lawrence Hecht as Tupolski
Photo: Terry Shapiro
As is often the case with fools and simpletons, the plain truth of Michal's worldview is capable of stealing any scene, and David Ivers takes full advantage of this tender yet strangely bent role to exercise his considerable talent and hijack our sympathies. Like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Ivers' Michal fluctuates between beast and babe without ever straying from character.

The two starkly contrasted but symbiotic brothers fall into the hands of two equally polarized but codependent gumshoes, the sarcastic Tupolski and the caustic Ariel. Experienced in their sinister brand of good cop, bad cop, the pair work the Katurian brothers over but good, driving a series of bizarre confessional twists.

(Front) Scott Ferrara as Katurian and (Back) Douglas Harmsen as Ariel
(Front) Scott Ferrara
as Katurian and
(Back) Douglas Harmsen
as Ariel
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Lawrence Hecht walks softly, yet carries a big stick, as the self-styled wit, Tupolski, grinning as he explains that, "We like executing writers. It sends a good signal." In a stunning testimony to McDonagh's brilliant pen, Douglas Harmsen pulls off the ultimate long shot as Ariel, providing the emotional steppingstones to turn a seething, irretrievable lout into a reverent, if not wholly converted, vehicle for the power of the written word.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Pillowman runs through February 24th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

 

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