THE PILLOWMAN by Martin McDonagh, directed by David Ferry, with Shaun Smyth, Richard McMillan, Oliver Becker and Paul Fauteux. Presented by Birdland Theatre in association with Canadian Stage at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews begin Monday (September 17), opens September 20 and runs to October 27, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$58, limited rush, some Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Think you know every variation on the good cop/bad cop plot?
Then you haven't seen The Pillowman, a roller-coaster ride of storytelling, horror and comedy that takes unpredictable twists and turns.
Set in an unnamed authoritarian country - characters have vaguely central European names - the award-winning play by Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, The Lonesome West) is the tale of Katurian, a writer who's questioned about a series of child murders that resemble those in his short stories.
His two interrogators, Tupolski and Ariel, begin as the classic "I'm really on your side" versus "Hey, fuck you" duo, with Tupolski in charge of the investigation and Ariel as his number two.
"But Ariel's a bad cop only in the eyes of others," says Oliver Becker, who plays the role in the Birdland/Canadian Stage production. "His methodology is to extract information, and quickly. He has no use for bureaucracy and, if he believes in someone's guilt, he'll get it out of them."
"Yes," agrees Richard McMillan, who plays his partner, "you start with Tupolski as the good cop, but their relationship is symbiotic. You need Ariel's brawn and Tupolski's intelligence - or what Tupolski thinks of as intelligence - to get results.
"They've been together so long that there's a kind of friction between them, and we enter the story at that point."
The two regularly riff on each other's ideas during the interview, offering joking as well as serious thoughts on their characters.
"It's like a marriage," continues Becker, who has appeared in two other McDonagh plays and also played Ariel in the work's Canadian premiere in Edmonton.
"Because of their closeness, they each know something about the other that no one else does. The way they relate to each other is competitive and dangerous, and it plays out in an unpredictable way in their dealings with Katurian."
The play is sprinkled with the stories that Katurian's written, sometimes simply related by one character and sometimes acted out.
"They're really fairy tales, the kinds of stories that scared us as kids," offers McMillan, who's played everything from Shakespeare at Stratford to Saruman in musical version of The Lord Of The Rings. "In the traditional tales, there's the safety of knowing it's not really happening; in this play, though, the things really do happen.
"That's part of the brilliance of McDonagh, of his stories within stories. The work is a bit like a 21st-century version of the Brothers Grimm."
The grimness/Grimmness of McDonagh's writing appeals to Becker, too, who admits to a love of Edward Gorey and the German Shock-Headed Peter stories, works of macabre humour in which parents scare and sometimes abuse their children.
"But what's beautiful in the middle of The Pillowman is the relationship between Katurian and his elder brother, Michal. There's a strong bond between them, one in part dependent on Michal's need for Katurian's stories. It's such a moving connection in the midst of all the craziness."
Given the story-based nature of the script, it's surprising that the two actors find the lines harder than usual to learn.
"Yes, it's because of McDonagh's dialogue," nods McMillan. "He watched NYPD Blue and all the American cop shows of the past 15 years, but then he amalgamated them with his Irish ancestry. What you get is 80 per cent spot-on cop show talk with the occasional tricky phrase that throws us off.
"You have to get the rhythms exactly right, and you can't try to North Americanize them. If you don't have the pace right, it turns into a puddle of piss."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Richard McMillan on Martin McDonagh's writing