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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fair
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The Pillowman: Cruel and unusual
Martin McDonagh's play presents a nightmarish interrogation
A moral tale that doesn't moralize.
A moral tale that doesn't moralize.
Credit:Colm McCarthy

At a time when the very definition of torture is being debated at the highest levels of government and the political atmosphere is seething with paranoia, Mercury Players Theatre could not have chosen a more opportune moment to present Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's nightmarish The Pillowman. And they almost certainly could not have chosen a better cast to tell this deeply disturbing story.

The action takes place in an undefined totalitarian state. The characters' names are deliberately diverse in their origin, as if to emphasize that brutality is not confined to one ethnicity or political persuasion, but is a universal human failing. Indeed, the play explores the uncomfortably blurry boundaries between the cruelty we alternately deplore and applaud in both individuals and institutions. McDonagh excavates dark areas of the human psyche and unflinchingly examines the motivations that drive people to do what they do. Along the way he confronts big issues (truth and culpability, responsibility and redemption, devotion and sacrifice) without actually making them Big Issues. He certainly tells a moral tale, but he doesn't moralize.

When a writer (R. Peter Hunt) is arrested for writing stories that bear uncanny resemblances to a series of gruesome child murders, he finds himself dragged into a terrifying Orwellian interrogation. Accused by two cold-blooded detectives (Rob Matsushita and George Gonzalez) of killings he knows he did not commit, he pathetically pleads that "It's not a crime to tell a story." But, as events transpire, we discover that he may not be the naf he appears to be, and McDonagh relentlessly unearths the roots of what drives all of the characters in the play to perform their respective acts of malice.

The performances are uniformly strong. Hunt is suitably skittish as he walks a desperately fine line between guilt and innocence. Matsushita's flippant comedic delivery masks the mind of a monster and draws a compelling contrast to Gonzalez's hulking physical intimidation. As the writer's mentally challenged brother, Christopher Braunschweig only occasionally strays into stereotype, but he and Hunt are captivatingly real in their fraternal relationship. The smaller roles are also deftly handled, aided by Micheal Herman's no-nonsense direction, as he draws out the comic and tragic elements of the play with equal fervor. Herman also wisely eschews McDonagh's native Irish dialect, thus avoiding an unnecessary distraction.

The production is not without faults. The pacing is uneven at times, although that will undoubtedly improve with performance, and the script, for all its intense brilliance, is occasionally overcooked. But the packed house on opening night was treated to a memorable, if morbid, evening of theater, and the standing ovation was richly deserved.

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