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‘Pillowman’ will smother or delight

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Weird, disturbing plays are a dime a dozen. Complex, thrilling, engrossing, hilarious theater works are not so easy to find. Berkeley Rep’s first production of the year, “The Pillowman,” is a rare bird that qualifies in both categories. If you don’t give up early (as a handful from the audience did at the Wednesday night premiere), you’ll be well rewarded, find it impossible to skip the second act and will be marinated in mirth and suspense.

The Berkeley company that has been originating plays going east has now imported Martin McDonagh’s hit from the West End and Broadway; it gives it a splendid production directed by Les Waters and featuring a fine cast.

The Irish playwright — of the memorable “Beauty Queen of Leenane” — here has gone to an obvious “don’t go there” subject, of child abuse on a cosmic scale, Grimm Brothers on steroids, with more than a touch of caustic acid. The Pillowman of a story within the play comes from the darkest of dark places, offering children suicide as a way out of the seemingly inevitable torture and pain of life ahead.

How do you go from those unimaginable depths to a fascinating whodunit, Stoppard-class sparkling wit, and having the audience in convulsions over the mindbending story of a deaf Chinese boy walking on the tracks, oblivious to the onrushing train? Through a twisted, brilliant mind, consistently skirting (or embracing) the repulsive, foul-mouthed as hell and absolutely fascinating.

As you might have gathered by now, this is not a play for everyone. Still, just as you can focus on and be carried away by the music of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children), “Pillowman” rises above its subject in ways that are difficult to imagine without seeing the play. Imagine, if you can, a Hieronymus Bosch painting overlaid with Picasso, “Peanuts” and “Doonesbury” fragments.

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The author of the Pillowman story — and of some 400 similar downers, plus-one “positive” story, having to do with a green piglet — is Katurian K. Katurian, played by Erik Lochtefeld in a “Hamlet”-length role. The play opens with his police-state style interrogation by Good Cop Tony Amendola and Very Bad Cop Andy Murray, both quite wonderful. McDonagh wrote dialogue for them that is perplexing, outrageous, very, very funny and more than a little scary. The plot revolves around the possible deaths of several children in a fashion outlined in Katurian’s stories.

Katurian’s mentally challenged brother, played gloriously by Matthew Maher, enters late in the story, but he dominates from that point on — and there is a lot to go in the play, which runs almost three hours. To the credit of McDonagh and the Berkeley Rep production, time goes by as in a dream or a nightmare … or both.

The Pillowman ***½

Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, plus some Thursday and Saturday matinees; closes Feb. 25

Tickets: $45-$61

Contact: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org

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