Grisly Sweet 

Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman has surprising rewards for those who can stomach it.

This is probably no comfort to the ticketholders who have walked out of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman so far, or those who doubtless will over the course of the run because they haven't taken seriously the description of the play that mentions murder, dismemberment, and the telling of gruesome children's stories. But the Berkeley Rep is going easy on us: The company could be doing McDonagh's fierce satire The Lieutenant of Inishmore, wherein a sleeping cat gets shot onstage, exploding "in a ball of blood and bone," and a man hanging upside down, bleeding from the former sites of his toenails, is asked to choose which nipple he can stand to lose to the protagonist's knife. It could have done any of the plays where the characters casually bash each other in the heads with pokers, mallets, or hammers. Or McDonagh's first, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, where a woman scalds her aged mother's hands with boiling cooking oil. Onstage.

Oh, wait. It did do that one. In the 1999-2000 season. Well, that's part of what makes the Rep so interesting: A house that size could stick with safe and heartwarming, with little challenges and proven hits. But it doesn't. It occasionally serves up plays as likely to enrage audiences as charm them. In this case, even though the material will be too much for anyone who can't stand hearing about bad things happening to children (or evil parents, but at least no animals get it this time), director Les Waters proves once again that he can balance horror and humor.

McDonagh, an English-born Irishman influenced by Mamet and the Clash alike, has made his name as a dramatist for language as gory as it is wickedly funny. This play, in fact, is much subtler than the six that precede it. The story of Katurian, who is interrogated by the police because a series of grisly local murders look a lot like his twisted little tales, is a fable about big issues. In addition to McDonagh's usual examination of skewed family dynamics, here he addresses censorship, the artist's responsibility, and to what lengths the state must go to preserve public safety.

It's also a lot more sophisticated than its predecessors. Whereas in the other plays we see the violence, here we mostly just hear about it. Well, besides the mock crucifixion. And the police brutality. And some smotherings. While McDonagh loves plot twists, sometimes to the point where his endings are cluttered with implausibles, they're less contrived here. The plot also is more intricate, with its nod to Scheherazade and the stories that might be flashbacks — or just stories.

The Pillowman also differs from McDonagh's County Galway-centered trilogies in that it doesn't have the painstakingly evoked sense of place. This one, chillingly, could be happening anywhere. The names of the characters give nothing away besides a vague Europeanness. Antje Ellerman's sickly green set evokes the sort of grand spaces you'd find in the former Soviet Union, now turned to other purposes; what might have once been a ballroom is now a police office with one ratty desk.

Erik Lochtefeld never lets up in intensity as Katurian. He's the hero, but not necessarily a good guy; he stridently defends his grim little stories as art and is willing to say whatever the cops want to hear to get free. And yet he loves his mentally challenged brother Michal, played show-stealingly here by New York actor Matthew Maher. Although the dialogue is witty, Maher's eye movements alone are hysterical.

It's total typecasting, but Andy Murray is a guilty pleasure as "bad cop" Ariel, who prefers torture over detective work. Former Berkeley Rep associate artist and director Tony Amendola has a smokily patrician voice and perfect physical control as "good cop" Tupolski, especially in moments like the one where he demonstrates an unusual kind of peripheral vision. In the second act, the two get into a revealing spat that points out how the most altruistic-seeming behavior might have less than pure motivations, and there's a moment or two that could almost be described as heartwarming. Almost.

The design and movement are muted by Waters' standards; there are few of the wonderful sartorial excesses of his Big Love or Fêtes de la Nuit, but no King of the Underworld riding around on a tricycle dragging an indescribable stuffed thing behind. Water does not pour out of the elevator, the ceiling does not lower menacingly, and actors do not climb up the proscenium arch. Waters could have responded to the challenge of this show by making it cartoonish, and he didn't — his actors could play their roles as completely brutish, and they don't.

Is it possible that we handle representations of brutality differently depending on the medium? Shows like CSI and Law and Order tell perfectly horrid stories several times a week. People must be sitting through this stuff, otherwise the networks, studios, and videogame companies wouldn't keep pumping it out. But there's a distancing with television that the stage does not allow, especially not the Rep's Thrust Stage, where audience members on one side can see those on the other, and every squish and thump arrives right in your lap.

This show is heavy, but if you can stomach the first act it has surprising rewards, from impeccable acting and incisive questions to laughs — even sweetness — in the most unlikely places.

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