Preview: With Fresno State’s ‘The Pillowman,’ prepare yourself for an encounter with a master of dark comedy

In the theater, dark comedy sneaks up on you. It makes you laugh at certain surprising (and often icky) topics, and then makes you blush immediately afterward because the nature of those topics make you feel guilty for laughing at them in the first place.

And the effect can be tremendous. When a dark comedy is well written, it can drive home a point far more effectively than a sturdy, preachy drama.

Martin McDonagh, the uber-acclaimed Irish playwright and screenwriter, is more than just a good writer of dark comedies, says J. Daniel Herring, director of Fresno State’s new production of “The Pillowman.” McDonagh is at genius level.

“He’s just a really clever writer,” Herring says. “The way he writes and catches you off guard — that’s his style, and he doesn’t really venture very far from that. Anything you’ve ever seen of it has an underlying seriousness to it. And yet you laugh at these eccentric characters and some of the mindsets of the characters.”

The mainstage production is in its opening weekend and continues through Saturday, May 13. Here are some musings about the play and tips for viewers of the Fresno State production:

• Think in terms of TV. Perhaps the best strategy in terms of an entry point into the play – particularly if you aren’t well versed with McDonagh’s style of writing – is to think of it like a procedural TV crime drama along the lines of “NCIS” or “Law and Order,” Herring says. But then add eccentric characters and a dark-comedy flair that makes you laugh for a moment. (See the guilt thing, above.) There is a mystery involved, and suspense, and McDonagh gives you clues throughout and things to figure out.


• This production is set in the modern day in an undetermined country. Those familiar with McDonagh know that the Irish playwright’s characters are often performed with sturdy Irish accents that can be hard to understand for American ears. The totalitarian setting isn’t America (or it isn’t yet, some pessimists would say), but some of the similarities are creepy.

• The plot sounds complicated, but it isn’t hard to follow. “The Pillowman” is about a writer named Katurian who has been arrested because a series of grisly murders resemble the plotlines of some of his stories. The play contains both narrations and reenactments of several of Katurian’s stories. One in particular is autobiographical and contains key information about his childhood and relationship with his brother, Michal, who has confessed to the murders. (To read more about the actor playing Michal, read Brianna Thorpe’s story in The Collegian.)

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• When you direct “The Pillowman,” you have to figure out how best to stage Katurian’s stories. In Fresno State’s case, it’s almost like “you’re designing two different shows at the same time,” Herring says. One takes place in the police interrogation room and is gritty and realistic. The other has a fantastical, otherworldly quality. (Think Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.”) The scenic, costume and lighting designs reflect that. “I don’t want to give away exactly how we’re going to do that, but I think this has been a really neat design project across the board for everyone,” he says.

• As an audience member, approach the play with at least a bit of a philosophical bent. McDonagh provides an undercurrent of contemplation about what happens to human beings when the people wielding power get to call all of the shots and when freedom of expression is curtailed. The crime part is compelling, but it isn’t the whole story. “He asks those questions juxtaposed with a very serious set of crimes. He makes you think about your world, about your view of things, about what we consider right or wrong,” Herring says.

• Are people born “bad”? That’s an endless debate, and “The Pillowman” will likely muddy the waters more. For one thing, McDonagh lets the viewer know how every single character ended up the way they are. And for a second – probably only a second, Herring says – we sympathize with those characters, even the most heinous ones. ”We are all made up of everything that happens to us. We’re born to where we live, what kind of society we’re in,” he says. “It all affects who we are, in one way or the other. And that sounds very philosophical. I don’t usually talk like that!”

McDonagh will do that to you.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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