The Pillowman

If you locked Franz Kafka, David Fincher (SevenFight Club), and Quentin Tarantino in a room and forced them to reinterpret It’s a Wonderful Life, the end result might be a lot like the Steppenwolf’s current run of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman.”

Replete with horrific absurd violence (including a Kill Bill-like severed head moment) and a generous sprinkling of quirky, profanity-laden dialogue, the play is a modern Grimm’s fairy tale that examines the role of art and the artist, the importance of storytelling and the effects of existential darkness in society.

Set in a vague totalitarian state, the bookend acts of the play feel like an episode of “Law & Order” set in Lenin’s Russia, where a sardonic good cop, Tupolski (Tracy Letts), and a vitriolic bad cop, Ariel (Yasen Peyankov), work over Katurian (Jim True-Frost), an author whose short story plots are eerily similar to the recent murders of three children. Throughout their interrogation, a sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome takes place, whereby the captors identify with, assume the place of and consider enabling the goals of the captive Katurian.

Peyankov’s conflicted performance as the violent heavy offsets Lett’s portrayal of Tupolsky, which, in its overt wryness, feels like an out-of-touch high school teacher trying too hard to relate to his students. Frost plays Katurian with a naive innocence that works well in painting the picture of an idealistic artist, but occasionally undermines the character’s more urgent and conflicting moments.

The middle act, with a maniacal and simultaneously gentle turn by Michael Shannon as Katurian’s mentally impaired brother, Michal, is the most powerful. Locked away in a holding cell, Katurian recounts a handful of his short stories to Michal and the audience, including the most compelling, “The Pillowman,” which asks the question, “Would you erase your existence in the knowledge that you were bound for a life of pain, even if that pain enables salvation or success for others?”

Scenic designer Loy Arcenas’s “stage within a stage” diorama-like set is an excellent vehicle for reenacting the stories, achieving the first rule of drama: “show, don’t tell” the audience.

“The Pillowman” consistently wrings uneasy gasps and engenders hearty bouts of laughter over the darkness of the human condition. McDonagh’s writing is so strong, a constant faceted tension of opposites, a Russian nesting doll of stories within stories, that not even inconsistent performances can undermine it.

The Pillowman runs through Nov. 12 at The Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Shows 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 3 & 7:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Tickets run $15 (for student rush)-$65. Call (312) 335-1650 or reserve online at www.steppenwolf.org.

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