“The Pillowman” is a complex play about violence, politics and the power of art. Confidently confronting issues such as child abuse and fratricide, the work is a feat for both the playwright and his audiences. It is perhaps even more of a challenge for the actors who must plumb the depths for their representation, particularly when those actors work under the constraints of limited resources and limited time. 

“Come and expect to laugh. And then leave shaken to your core,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jordan Sam Rich, director of “The Pillowman.”

Comedies can’t get any darker than this. 

Basement Arts, a student-run theater organization that has provided free entertainment to the University for over 20 years, has never shied away from challenges such as these. In fact, the group actively seeks cutting-edge work that continues to push the boundaries of both its own previous productions and the rest of the University’s theater world. Most audiences can’t get enough of it; some of their notable productions like “A Very Potter Musical” and “Me and My Dick” have even reached national success.

This Saturday, Basement Arts is putting on its production of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” with a cast of four. After its debut in 2003, the play has been produced on Broadway and London’s West End and earned the 2004 Oliver Award for Best New Play.

The play is set in an unnamed dystopian society with its main character, Katurian, as a short-story writer. After detectives discover an eerie similarity between the gruesome violence of Katurian’s stories and several recent child murders, he is brought in for questioning. When Katurian hears that his brother Michael has confessed to the murders, including sharing details on their twisted upbringing, Katurian suffocates him as a kind of mercy killing. His mission is to save his stories from destruction. Many of these stories are recounted within the play.

With two weeks to put together this five-week production, Rich casted the show based on the ability to capture the emotional depth of these highly complex and troubled characters.

“Each character is so specific and different in what they’ve gone through in life, and really an understanding of that and an understanding of drama is what I was looking for from actors,” Rich said.

Although originally scripted as a cast of all men, Rich bent the gender of one of the detective characters in an effort to make the production more relatable to female audiences. The production has innovated in other ways, too, in order to make such a multilayered play possible.

“When I first started thinking about proposing this show, it was two years ago and I said to myself, ‘No, it’s too challenging of a piece,’ ” Rich said. “I didn’t know how I was going to do the stories, because I wanted to do each one a different way. So now, we have shadow play, we have puppets, we have lighting changes, and we have some that are just stories read aloud.”

Expect laughs to turn to tears, breaths to be drawn and irresistibly uncomfortable moments to last too long. Revel in “The Pillowman” ’s bleakness and you’ll be just fine. 

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