A woman walked into Ion Theatre’s intimate space, glanced at the set, and froze. The stage is an interrogation room: institutional gray, cinderblock walls, a rickety table, and a blindfolded prisoner on his knees, downstage right. “I thought you said we were seeing Pillow Talk,” she told her companions, “the musical.”

Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman is light years from Pillow Talk. Grim, relentless, and bizarrely playful, The Pillowman unfolds like a tale by Kafka, only in six or eight constantly shifting dimensions. At once hyperreal and surreal, The Pillowman puts art on trial. And in the end, not just art but life itself.

His middle initial, Katurian K. Katurian explains to his interrogators, also stands for Katurian. “My parents were funny people.” Hold that thought. Funny? If what he later tells us is true, Katurian’s parents were Josef Mengele–minded experimentalists: they tortured his older brother for seven years and, to make him a better writer, tormented him as well. Like much else in The Pillowman, “funny” becomes a complex word.

Katurian’s written 400 short stories, 398 about child abuse and murder. Only one’s been published. In Libertad. Is that why he’s getting the third degree, because a left-leaning mag liked him? He has no axe to grind, Katurian insists, “no social anything whatsoever.” Tupolski, a self-described “high-ranking police officer in a totalitarian dictatorship,” doesn’t say. He just tears up a form about bad things happening to a prisoner in custody.

The police, as abusive as his parents, interrogate Katurian and his brother Michael, who’s “slow to get things” and can’t foresee the consequences of an action. Michael may have committed crimes he copycatted from his bother’s stories (like the little girl who thought she was Jesus, so her parents stuck a spear in her side). Three children have been murdered. Is Katurian guilty? Michael? Katurian’s short stories?

The Pillowman takes a police state view of art. It triggers evil, says Ariel, the #2 cop on the case. He had a childhood as problematic as Katurian’s and is the opposite of Prospero’s sprite. “I stand on the right side,” Ariel tells Katurian. “I would torture you to death just for writing that story!”

The play’s title refers to a fable about a nine-foot pillow being who looks “soft and safe” and who stages tragic accidents for children so they’d “avoid the years of pain” ahead, “facing an oven, facing a shotgun, facing a lake.”

Ion Theatre has matched McDonagh’s intensities with a tight, ferocious staging. Under Claudio Raygoza’s expert direction, and with one of the best casts ever assembled at Ion, we are either slumming in a hellhole or, as McDonagh insists, seeing the world unmasked. The excellent production is “funny,” in Katurian’s complex sense: people laugh in odd places out of self-defense, just to break its spell.

Craig Noel Award–winner Jeffrey Jones shines as Katurian, who has a fresh, albeit lethal, innocence. Unlike Josef K, tried for crimes unknown in Kafka’s novel The Trial, the more we learn about Katurian, the more his guilt and innocence expand. Jones crafts an oxymoron: a sympathetic killer.

Tupolski doesn’t let his “emotions come out at work.” In repressing them, Matt Scott makes the detective as deep as an iceberg — and as cold. In Scott’s terrific performance, he gives matter-of-fact line readings tinged, at the edges, with monster ironies, as when Tupolski tells Ariel, in measured tones, “Hurry up and torture the prisoner, we have to shoot him in half an hour.”

***

The San Diego Theater Critics Circle held its annual award ceremony last week. The evening included a tribute to the late Dr. Floyd Gaffney, the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to the Old Globe’s Jack O’Brien (who enters the Broadway Hall of Fame this week) and a new Jack O’Brien Versatility Award, given to Esther Emery, director of Yellowman and Communicating Doors at Cygnet and Devil Dog Six at Moxie, three of the best, most diverse productions of 2007.

Craig Noel, in his early 90s, handed out the awards. Before the ceremony began, we put a cushion on his chair.

“Could I have another?” he asked. “No, make that two.”

For the Father of San Diego Theater? Are you kidding? “You need four, we’ve got ’em,” I said, joking and dead serious.

Noel, who had sat down on three cushions, jumped up and said, “Yes, one more please.”

On the spot, Noel devised a four-cushion launching pad that shot him upward to greet each new recipient. He handed out the awards with the energy of a teenager.

Best Musical: A Catered Affair, Old Globe Theatre

Resident Musical: West Side Story, Moonlight Stage Productions; Ragtime, Starlight Musical Theatre

Lyrics for a Musical: David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, Cry-Baby, La Jolla Playhouse

Score for a Musical: John Bucchino, A Catered Affair, Old Globe Theatre

Direction of a Musical: John Doyle, A Catered Affair

Music Direction: Don LeMaster, The Full Monty, San Diego Musical Theatre; Justin Gray, The Buddy Holly Story, Welk Resort Theatre

Lead Performance in a Musical, Female: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Ragtime, Starlight Musical Theatre; Faith Prince, A Catered Affair, Old Globe Theatre

Lead Performance in a Musical, Male: Robert Barry Fleming, Ain’t Misbehavin’, San Diego Repertory Theatre

Lead Performance in a Musical, Female: Alli Mauzey, Cry-Baby, La Jolla Playhouse

Choreography: Robin Christ and Kathy Meyer, Sailor’s Song, New Village Arts; Rob Ashford, Cry-Baby, La Jolla Playhouse

Original Music for a Play: Andrew Pleuss and Benn Sussman, after the quake, La Jolla Playhouse

Direction of a Play: Kristianne Kurner, Sailor’s Song, New Village Arts

Sound Design: Paul Peterson, Bell, Book, and Candle, The Old Globe; Jeremy Siebert, Cowboy Versus Samurai, Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company

Costume Design: Jessica John, Sailor’s Song, New Village Arts; Karen Perry, Two Trains Running, Old Globe Theatre

Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt, A Catered Affair, Old Globe Theatre

Set Design: Nick Fouch, Yellowman, Cygnet Theatre; Sailor’s Song, New Village Arts; Devil Dog Six, Moxie Theatre

Ensemble Cast: Sailor’s Song, New Village Arts

Featured Performance in a Play, Female: Sandy Campbell, Communicating Doors, Cygnet Theatre

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