I'm tempted to structure The Pillowman along Freudian lines: There's the Ego, or Katurian K. Katurian, a writer of grotesque fairy tales, often involving children, the most compelling of which being “The Pillowman,” about a gentle giant made of pillows who, upon arriving upon the scene of an adult trying to kill him or herself, goes back in time to try to convince the child version of that adult to kill him or herself, thereby avoiding a lifetime of grief.
Then there's the Id, Katurian's brother Michal, a developmentally-disabled young adult who revels in the world of Katurian's stories, inhabiting them with the investment of one who incompletely distinguishes fact from fiction.
And, finally, we have the super-ego, rendered here as a “totalitarian police state,” as it is knowingly described by its representatives: The bad cop, bad cop team of Tupolski and Ariel, who have brought in both brothers for interrogation concerning crimes that eerily match the plot of Katurian's largely unpublished short stories.
But that's just one reading, and there are many, because The Pillowman is about storytelling — both on the page and in “real life” — and the ways we interpret the stories of others. In one sense, it's about a writer's nightmare that people might assume his or her sickest ideas and stories represent, say, wish fulfillment or, even worse, a diaristic account of crimes committed; a police state, which has little or no sense of irony and little respect for the life of the mind, would take such a literal reading. On another level, the play is a ripping black comedy, full of great zingers and playful stereotypes: the hard-boiled detectives who toy with their suspect and each other; the writer who must suffer to write well.
Martin McDonagh's play is rich and complex, in other words; while there are certainly sensational aspects, including child murders that have their antecedent in Black Plague-era legends like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, such violence isn't there just for the sake of cheap thrills. And paperStrangers presented the play effectively enough to allow one to puzzle over the source material, with paperStrangers co-founder Michael Burke directing.
But it was very cold in the garage bay of the Big Car Service Center, and that brings me to a key point: If you're going to make the audience sit in a 55-some degree garage for three hours, why not go all the way in terms of stagecraft, using the space to its full potential to realize the feel and themes of the play? Say, illuminate the stage with only an overhead lamp, interrogation room-style, instead of bathing the action with additional lights. Try to disorient and shock us, because, otherwise, why couldn't we watch the action in the relative comfort of another space? The setup, as it was, restricted action to a corner of the garage bay, which allowed for a certain degree of black box-style intimacy, but not much interaction with the space itself.
Regardless, performances were generally solid: Matthew Goodrich was convincing as Katurian, if somehow pensive and restrained; Ryan Mullins carried himself effectively as Michal, and the brothers' emotional sparring in act two was gripping. Spencer Elliot as Ariel played the bad cop a bit too stereotypically to make us believe him when he departed from that stereotype; Patrick McCarney was often funny as the better, if not quite good, cop of the duo. I'll confess to being a bit tired of DIY visuals using an overhead projector; they seemed a bit too crude, juxtaposed against McDonagh's polished words, and didn't really enchant as intended.