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Theater review: The Pillowman

Story's shivers keep viewers' spines tingling
by: ©2007 OWEN CAREY, A young Katurian (Tanner Ward) writes under the watchful eye of his overinvested parents (Susan Norton and Damon Kupper) in “The Pillowman.”

On opening night last weekend, Chris Coleman surveyed the audience about its reaction to pre-show publicity for Martin McDonagh's grim comedy drama.

'How many of you came despite what you heard?' asked the artistic director at Portland Center Stage, whose company had warned subscribers about the play's dark subject matter. 'How many came because of what you heard?'

The house was pretty evenly divided, but the bigger story was voter participation. As much as one quarter of the 600-seat main-stage theater sat empty.

Center Stage's advisory may have scared some people away, Coleman admits, but he has no regrets: 'I would rather lose somebody for one production than lose a subscriber for the rest of time. We will make it up in single ticket sales.'

They may indeed, for while McDonagh's acclaimed play is harrowing, it is also a vivid and thought-provoking whodunit about the power of storytellers and how much of any story one should believe.

And, as he did in last season's 'The Lonesome West,' the playwright shows that his genius is in his ability to denature violence by creating worlds filled with characters all too ready to live with it. As if it simply belongs there.

Katurian (Cody Nickell) is a horror writer whose stories seem to have inspired a string of child murders. He's under interrogation by a pair of sadistic detectives, who may or may not be giving the same treatment to his mentally challenged brother Michal (Tim True) in the adjoining cell.

We learn through a delightfully wicked flashback scene that Michal spent his childhood confined to his bed and tortured by his parents, so that his anguished cries would help deepen the already evident writing skills of his brother in the next room.

Discovering this horror, Katurian murders his parents and takes charge of his damaged sibling, who comes to revere his brother's writings, later revealing that he murdered the children.

Or did he?

Good theater can indeed succeed by asking questions rather than providing answers, but they have to be good questions.

This play may not represent McDonagh's best work. The end of the first act bogs down as the playwright lingers long in illustrating the ties between the two brothers.

But the production is lush with technical mastery and solid acting, and with one deft twist of the tale in the second act, everything we've been told is suddenly in question. In a deeply satisfying way, we learn firsthand that a story, however colorfully or convincingly told, is oftentimes just that.

Or not.

- Eric Bartels

7:30 p.m. FRIDAY, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. SATURDAY, 2 p.m. SUNDAY, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, noon and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (weekend times vary later in run), through March 15, Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, www.pcs.org, $16.50-$59.50