While Portland Center Stage's current production of The Pillowman has been hyped for the "disturbing" nature of its content, focusing on the more sensationalist aspects of the production would do it a disservice: Forget child mutilation and torture, Martin McDonagh's script is easily one of the funniest, smartest, and most compelling pieces of writing I've encountered in ages.
The script follows a writer, Katurian (Cody Nickell), who is imprisoned by agents of a "totalitarian dictatorship" for his suspected involvement in a series of child murders: The murders are based on scenes from stories he has written. The bad cop/worse cop banter of Katurian's interrogators (Sean Cullen and James Kennedy) is a highlight of the show. When it turns out that Katurian's mentally ill brother Michal (Tim True) is responsible for the murders, Katurian must address his own personal and artistic responsibility for his brother's actions.
Much of the show consists of Katurian narrating his stories, which, like the set design, combine elements of the whimsical and the grotesque. When in the midst of one story, scenic designer Russell Parkman's deceptively simple jail cell set abruptly opens to reveal a cheerful, childlike bedroom set, it's hard to imagine any audience member resisting that moment of pure theatrical pleasure, even if the scene does quickly spiral into physical abuse and emotional cruelty. It's hard to find fault with this show, with one exception: I've been troubled by Casi Pacilio's heavy-handed sound design all season, and here her cheesy, horror-film atmospherics are the sole jarring note in an otherwise brilliantly designed production.
Portland Center Stage deserves props for taking this one on. The Pillowman marks a bold divergence from their usual crowd-pleasing fare, and pays off: I've seen about a million shows in Portland, and The Pillowman stands out as one of the best. Plus, tickets are only $16.50 for Sunday-Thursday shows, so the old "theater is too expensive" line isn't going to fly—this one is officially a must see.