Theatre Lab’s ‘The Pillowman’ is haunting and provocative

If you prefer the kind of live theater that features a small talented team taking command of a stark space and meeting the challenge of a potent, edgy work with blistering intensity, then you must see Theatre Lab’s production of “The Pillowman.” An intrepid quartet is absolutely riveting in playwright Martin McDonagh’s dark tale.

The Irish playwright’s acclaimed work includes “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” and “The Lonesome West,” in addition to the Oscar-nominated screenplay for ‘In Bruges.” He often displays a cynicism, with a comical edge to gloomy drama.

In “The Pillowman,” he explored his familiar themes of loneliness and struggles of common, unfulfilled people, often damaged by unfortunate circumstances. In this 2003 Olivier Award winner for Best New Play, he has also flipped Brothers Grimm-style fairy tales into gruesome encounters of pain, suffering and despair, for his lead character writes disturbing short stories where people do not live happily ever after.

In a totalitarian state, Katurian (Jason Klefisch) writes sick and twisted fiction that includes children being tortured by trusted but deeply harmful adults. He is interrogated by two violent cops, detective Tupolski (Eric Dean White) and police officer Ariel (Darian Michael Garey) because recent child murders appear eerily similar to what he has written.

His “slow’ brother Michal (Nick Kelly) has been apprehended, and confesses to the crimes. When Katurian was a young boy, he heard his parents abuse his brother, and this went on for years until he put an end to it. Ever since, Katurian has felt responsible for the care of his vulnerable, scarred brother. Poor, pitiful Michal wants only stories with happy endings after the misery he has endured, but now his aberrant behavior is ghastly.

McDonagh’s bristling dialogue is piercing when interpreted by the four actors. The brotherly bond between Katurian and Michal is strong through Klefisch and Kelly’s exchanges, and the duo is dynamic in the devastating Act Two. Their relationship recalls George and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.”

Klefisch is absorbing as the conflicted writer, tormented by what transpired in childhood. But it is Kelly’s extraordinary performance as the dimwitted Michal that is haunting. He is heartbreaking as a crumpled shell of a guy, and he carefully modulated his portrayal to refrain from being a caricature.

The good cop-bad cop relationship is effective between White and Garey, and they play off each other well. Eventually, the flaws emerge in all the characters, but these four actors never lose their humanity. The intense emotions are conveyed well, and will stay with the audience long after the curtain call.

Violence is a given in McDonagh’s storytelling, and “The Pillowman” is grim and brutal, but the vivid imagery is what is seared into your imagination.

Ryan Foizey’s fledgling troupe is committed to presenting thought-provoking work, and McDonagh’s prize-winning but rarely produced 2003 play fits their mission. But the demands of such a show are daunting — and it really speaks to Foizey’s vision that he has transformed some of the trickier elements, such as visualizing the short stories, through an artist’s rendering instead of performers acting them out.

Smartly directed, Foizey features sharp illustrations by Aaron Allen, a local artist with credits including Marvel and DC Comics, and painting by Michelle Sauer, skillfully punctuated by original music by Luke Viertel.

The austere set design by Rob Lippert of O’Fallon evokes the harsh location, whle James Slover’s lighting design further adds to the desolation.

Theatre Lab’s work is both muscular and provocative, but stands out as a well-defined production with searing, unforgettable performances.

At a glance

What: “The Pillowman”

Who: Theatre Lab

When: 8 p.m. May 29, 30 and June 4-7; 2:30 p.m. May 31

Where: Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis

Tickets: 314-599-3309; www.brownpapertickets.com