Superb acting elevates creepy, edgy 'Pillowman'

John Zak (left), Robert DaPonte in Luna Theater's "The Pillow- man."
John Zak (left), Robert DaPonte in Luna Theater's "The Pillow- man." (GREGORY SCOTT CAMPBELL)
Posted: January 22, 2014

Luna Theater's crackerjack production of The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh's terrifying, almost-funny play, adds to Luna's roster of profoundly edgy, creepy shows. Luna has carved out a niche market for itself that is much like McDonagh's, whose grotesquely weird and grim entertainments such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Beauty Queen of Lenane, and The Cripple of Inishmaan have become staples of the contemporary stage.

"The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story," Katurian Katurian says to his brutal interrogator in an unnamed police state. There has been a series of child murders imitating events in Katurian's gruesome stories, and the writer and his brain-damaged brother are being held under suspicion. The play is a puzzle, brain-teasing us, flirting with big questions about, say, the moral responsibility of an author to the public, or whether there is a causal relationship between violence and creativity, or whether all art is political, or whether life is even worth living in McDonagh's cruel world.

That "first duty of a storyteller" is fulfilled, since we hear many stories in the course of the play, holding the audience as rapt as kids around a campfire. The decision any director has to make is how much to dramatize the stories: The more acting-out of the stories' bizarre plots, the more cartoonish the violence, the more theatrical the play.

Gregory Scott Campbell has decided wisely - given the limited space and lack of bells and whistles at Luna's new venue - to emphasize the storytelling, letting the excellent words and these excellent actors do the work.

As Katurian Katurian, Robert DaPonte is superb: bedraggled, lucid, a mesmerizing storyteller. John Zak as the brother finds just the right combination of pitiable and appalling. As the "good cop," Ian Lithgow is disconcertingly elegant, while Chris Fluck plays the "bad cop," with his smothered rage, to the hilt. The relationship between the cops could be more developed, and their backstories deepened.

Without the goofy enactments (which are specified in McDonagh's stage directions) of the horrific stories and their sensationalist violence, the tales gain weight, making this Pillowman grimmer and more somber than it should be. A woman said to me on the way out, "That was torture." And, true to the play's ambivalent style, I couldn't tell whether she was joking or not.


The Pillowman

Luna Theater, 620 S. Eighth St. Through Feb. 8.

Tickets: $20-$25. Information: 215-704-0033,

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