A young man enters the Fulton Street Center for the Arts in downtown Boise, carrying a spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen. It's a Wednesday night.
Beyond the pastel-colored walls and beverage bar he strides, grabbing a bench seat in the lobby. An overhead light dims briefly then re-brightens; he produces his ticket at the theater entrance and finds his seat in row F.
His eyes focus on the scene in front of him: a basement, framed by a dingy grey back wall and years' worth of file boxes stacked to the ceiling. All light is suddenly gone and replaced by soft woodwinds, which fade when an overhead bulb illuminates a blindfolded man in a chair, a captive in this bleak place.
The young man in row F is an aspiring writer, and he has just discovered his muse—Boise Contemporary Theater's production of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh.
The prisoner is Katurian (played by Matthew Cameron Clark), a prolific writer of gruesome short stories, arrested because recent child murders bear striking resemblances to his dark fables. He is soon joined by police interrogators Tupolski (played by Richard Klautsch) and Ariel, a good cop/bad cop duo set on coercing a confession. Katurian's older, developmentally-delayed brother, Michal, it is revealed, is being held in the next room.
As the officers interview Katurian, they alternate banter with beatings, talk with torture. And when left alone, Katurian unfolds a handful of his stories, each reenacted behind him as he narrates. The Pillowman is a favorite apologue he retells Michal when the two are later reunited.
Through the course of the play, snippets of each man's past are revealed, illustrating a common bond of pain and devastation to different degrees. Vastly different as they are, all must deal with demons.
"Four deeply scarred men in the play are presented with a problem—how to protect innocence and the innocent when you are no longer innocent," director Gordon Reinhart says. "I would like the audience to experience the emotion, drama and, yes, humor of this struggle."
Laughing while watching this drama seems, at times, painfully wrong, but there are clearly very funny lines. The Pillowman acknowledges it is OK to commingle droll and dreadful moments.
"How very Tim Burton-esque," the young writer muses. "Dark, disturbing ... sad, funny ... and heartwarming—all at the same time."
"McDonagh is the kind of playwright that gets you to laugh, then cringe, then hold your breath until you laugh again," Clark writes in the program notes.
"He builds suspense that will make you rush back to your seat after intermission."
The exposition, per Clark "a not so distant future, ruled by an unnamed totalitarian regime," is timelessly presented on stage. The costumes and accents say '20s, '30s, '40s: it's a terrible pre-WWII Eastern Europe, while some of the verbiage suggests anachronism. Pillowman's deeper meanings reverberate, whether they're new or old.
"The moral in my opinion is that the expression of art is vital to a healthy community, even when that art is sometimes motivated by the most troubling of influences," says Klautsch.
The play concludes, the lights blink out one final time, but the writer's imagination won't subside. Katurian's simple stories, the emotional course of the play and adroit acting by BCT leave him inspired, though perhaps not all comers achieve the same level of enlightenment.
"Well, that was weird," blurts an aged woman from over his shoulder.
In a late scene, while he and his brother face execution for their alleged crimes, Katurian admits that if the police were set to destroy two of the three—himself, his brother and his stories—he would pick the two men first, because "it isn't about being dead or not being dead. It's about what you leave behind."
That is not weird; it's universal.
Days later, the writer summarizes The Pillowman as a dark journey through an ultra-realistic fictional society; a tour guided by all-too-real made-up characters; a rhapsody on the importance of art and the immortality it can offer. And BCT did one helluva job with it, he concludes.
"A good struggle with a serious dilemma usually yields up to a good story, and I feel that is what we have with this play and these artists at BCT," affirms Reinhart, jokingly offering just one piece of advice to those reeling once they've seen the excessively dark Pillowman.
"A strong drink afterward wouldn't hurt."
The Pillowman runs through Feb. 23. Visit BCTheater.org for dates and times. Boise Contemporary Theater, 845 Fulton St., 208-331-9224.