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Theater reviews: The Pillowman, Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Harvey

Dark comedy returns with volatile complexity

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Killing people for the sheer fun of it isn't just for sadists, tyrannical megalomaniacs or demented psychopaths. No, as Martin McDonagh's darkly comical The Pillowman reminds us over and over, killing is also a playground for short story writers ­— and, of course, playwrights. Such sardonic, subversive sentiments didn't quite capture the fancy of Tony Award voters in 2005 when Doubt, Democracy, and Gem of the Ocean were the other nominees.

But a decade later, the connection that McDonagh drew between what writers imagine and what their susceptible readers — or listeners — might do no longer seems so wicked and controversial. Whether it's atrocities at schools traced to videogames or Charlie Hebdo in the crosshairs of terrorists for penning cartoons, writers and creatives have taken notice. We are not likely to be quite as dismissive as Katurian K. Katurian, McDonagh's tragic protagonist, when he's confronted with the idea that his fictions have inspired two, or possibly three, grotesque murders.

Yet at UpStage in NoDa, as the blindfolded Katurian was brutally interrogated by two policemen in a totalitarian state, it was 2005 all over again as Quixotic Theatre's new production opened a two-weekend run. Or it was 2007, when Actor's Theatre staged the Charlotte premiere of Pillowman and ran away with CL's Show of the Year honors.

Sympathy for Katurian is unavoidable, especially with the lamb-like Daniel O'Sullivan in the role. Jackboot interrogators, good cop Tupolski and bad cop Ariel, bully and coerce the hapless writer. Toying with him, and ratcheting up the tension, Tupolski and Ariel don't tell Katurian what he's accused of. Compounding the prisoner's anguish — and our sympathy — even more, we hear the screams from Katurian's feeble-minded brother Michal coming from the adjoining interrogation room.

By the end of the evening, McDonagh manages to turn all the natural assumptions that his high-pressure opening scene generates upside-down. The harmlessness of short stories, the innocence of Katurian, and the injustice of totalitarian regimes are no longer axiomatic. In the final scene, we must also recalculate who the good cop really is ­— and perhaps recalculate again.

Beneath all this sleight-of-hand that keeps us guessing about the relative virtues of the Katurians and their tormentors, there's one joker card that's always face-up on the table. While all the stupid wars around the globe are killing soldiers, mothers and children, there's a parallel stream of carnage around the clock. Gratuitous acts of violence and murder are being acted out all the time because of words that writers have put on paper. It's called theatre, folks. Or if it's being done more prolifically and electronically, it's TV or movies.

Or if you were sitting in the sold-out house at UpStage last Saturday night, it's this play.

The volatile complexity McDonagh's vision has drawn some excellent actors to this fringe project. Quixotic director Sean Kimbro coaxes complexity and volatility from all the central characters throughout the long night — nearly three hours with two intermissions. It begins with O'Sullivan while we still see him as a victim, for he shows leonine defiance and fury championing his brother when he hears his screams.

Devin Clark's portrayal of Tupolski is no less rewarding as he gradually proves to have as much kinship with the playwright as Katurian, maybe more. Not only does the genial "good cop" turn out to be a short-story writer, he actually revels in deceiving Katurian, heartless to the bone. We also find that Katurian is capable of mendacity but only for heroic purposes. As the more menacing Ariel — is his name a fiendish joke? — Joseph Watson belatedly proves to have a softer side and a spirit somewhat akin to Katurian's. Watson was as convincing when he wavered as he was when he was explosive. Thuggish as he usually is, Ariel can also be duplicitous in his methods.

How can you not have sympathy for Michal, who was abused by his parents so that the distillation of his sufferings would turn his brother into the formidably twisted writer he becomes? McDonagh and Christopher Herring will show you how. Our first sight of him is like a rising from the dead, but he will not be the Jesus of this piece, even though Herring's equanimity is nearly as great as Clark's. Simple as he is, he can keep a secret — and you'll be glad to find out he can also tell a lie.

Janine Atkinson and Grant Watkins double as the parents of the Katurian brothers and of the female Jesus in one of their boy's short stories. Both sets of monsters are played with all of the wholesomeness that you'd expect from Ozzie and Harriet or Mike and Carol Brady. Leslie Ann Giles, as the fictional Jesus girl, shows a staunch defiance toward her parents that echoes Katurian's resistance toward his torturers — with much the same results.

When Dennis Delamar directed Pillowman in 2005, he chose actual children to take the lumps from the mean parents, upping the edgy discomfort of the viewing experience. On loan from the Children's Theatre, where she's still doing a title role in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Giles will not disappoint you wearing the crown of thorns. Not much else will at UpStage.

So how are things in Popperville, site of Mike Mulligan's last-ditch heroics? With Giles back as Mary Anne, the old-style steam shovel, and Stephen Seay returning as the gruff taskmaster, Mr. Swap, my verdict remains the same as it was in 2010 when this musical first came to ImaginOn: "Grab a kid and go see this." Scott Miller is brightly and blindly optimistic as Mike singing the catchiest of the songs, "Mary Anne Can," but he's even more comical as Nukee, the nuclear shovel that has the best chance of winning Swap's job bid. As Swap's underling and as a little girl who roots Mary Anne on, Tanya McClellan proves there are actually warm humans in Popperville. She also wields one of Peter Smeal's fine puppet designs as the electric shovel.

Jenny Male certainly hasn't messed things up directing Mike Mulligan in her Children's Theatre debut, but she's making a more impressive splash with Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, a Kevin Kling adaptation that hasn't played Charlotte since 2001, when ImaginOn was hardly a gleam in Alan Poindexter's eye. Poindexter directed daringly, casting grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers in most of the key roles, including tenth-grader Amanda Rentschler as the title mouse — who enters proclaiming herself "Queen of the World!"

At McColl Family Theatre, we get an obstreperous bravura performance by Katy Shepherd leading the all-adult cast, not as touching in Lilly's contrition but knee-slapping funnier in her brassy conceit — because everyone in the house understands what an over-the-top regression this all is. Sidney Horton and Nicia Carla as Dad and Mom counterbalance Shepherd with their patience and sanity, while Steven Ivey injects a pinch of humor as Lilly's "listen up, rodents" schoolteacher. Devin Clark (yep, moonlighting in Pillowman) and Jonathan Ewart add more laughs as Lilly's goofy admiring chums, Chester and Wilson.

Audiences loved Mary Chase's Harvey enough in 1945 to keep it running on Broadway for over four years. It was one of the first comedies I covered on the Loaf theatre beat in 1987 when Theatre Charlotte was called Little Theatre of Charlotte, and it's still getting a rollicking reception at the Queens Road barn in a production marked by strong, winsome contrasts under the direction of Corey Mitchell.

You've got a mild and blissful eccentric in Elwood P. Dowd, rendered with spindly insouciance by Tony Wright. Opposite him is his frustrated sister, Veta Louise Simmons, whose social aspirations for herself and daughter Myrtle Mae — are thwarted by the six-foot pooka rabbit that her perpetually tipsy and hallucinating brother insists on introducing to everyone. Poppy Pritchett plays her at just a notch or two below demented frenzy, which is why Vera's plan to put Elwood in a sanitarium goes awry. Tom Scott as sanitarium director Dr. Chumley is just as unstable and four times as loud.

I'm guessing that Americans still cherish their eccentrics as much as the British. They're surely loving Elwood as much as ever in Myers Park.

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