Desert Stages Theatre artistic director Terry Helland clearly is mad. Onto the tiny black box stage of his Actor's Café, he continues to wedge dark, offbeat plays that no doubt strike terror in the hearts of the mainstream theatergoers who turn up in droves for the more bland fare on the playhouse's main stage. For your madness, Mr. Helland, and for your interest in striking some kind of artistic balance, we salute you.
This time out, Helland has chosen Martin McDonagh's notorious The Pillowman, about a writer of fables named Katurian Katurian Katurian whose stories typically involve the sadistic murder of children. He's been arrested by two detectives, Ariel and Tupolski, because a pair of recent child murders mimic details from Katurian's stories. Also in custody is Katurian's brother, Michal, who is demented because he was tortured by his parents as a child. Listening to Michal being tortured long ago inspired his brother's grisly stories, which in turn may have inspired Michal, in adulthood, to commit crimes for which both brothers must now pay.
McDonagh's theme, which emerges slowly, is about the ways in which art informs our lives, for better and worse. The author's staging most often places two characters onstage at one time, and Helland crams them close together to emphasize the intimate, almost claustrophobic jailhouse setting in which the play's odd couples — a pair of perverse siblings; a duo of depraved police officers — reside.
Helland's tight, wiry production makes the most of the limited resources at its disposal. Sets and costumes are simple; the lighting workmanlike and effective. Helland's direction is at the service of the playwright, whose writing and stage notes set a somber tone and carve the play's delicate balance with wide swipes of very sharp wit. Still, Helland brings some real tone to a tale that whips in and out of dark comedy and frank tragedy, and adds a new twist to McDonagh's story by changing the gender of one of the cops.
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The supporting cast is never less than competent, and in the case of Travis Russell, who plays Michal, often more than that. But the production belongs entirely to Todd Isaac, who as Katurian brings a lighthearted lilt — and a lot of interesting contradiction — to a very dark man's soul. In the first act, we have no doubt that he's a selfish but largely innocent fellow, an opinion that shifts as he (and we) considers his culpability in his brother's vile actions. In the final act, with the help of some subtle emoting from Isaac, Katurian becomes a sympathetic and more fully realized character whose own madness burns brightly at the center of an already crazy tale.