WELLFLEET - How do you wrest humor and insight out of tales of tortured children? Very gingerly - or, if you're the hot-ticket British playwright Martin McDonagh ("The Beauty Queen of Leenane," etc.), boldly, with great art and assurance.
"The Pillowman," which swept all sorts of awards in London and on Broadway and has now made its way to Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, is not for the squeamish - though in truth the terse, twisted fables spun by McDonagh's authorial stand-in Katurian (here played with a touching Henry Fonda earnestness by Adam Harrington) are no worse than what you'd find in the canon of classic fairy tales. In the unnamed totalitarian state he happens to inhabit, however, ideating is tantamount to perpetrating - especially once someone starts acting out the heinous misdeeds that Katurian merely committed to paper.
The play opens with Katurian being brutally interrogated by a good cop/bad cop duo, Tupolski and Ariel (Tom Patrick Stephens and David Fraioli, each brilliantly fervent in his fashion). The unseen accused - whom we hear howling with pain in an adjoining room - is Katurian's brain-damaged brother Michal (Marc Carver, a bit too bright-eyed once he does turn up). The story of their shared childhood, related by Katurian with a visual assist in the form of a projected film by Shandor Garrison, out-grims the brothers Grimm.
McDonagh is building up layers of past and present, putative truth and fiction, and director Jeff Zinn's decision to replace the usual pantomimed reenactments with film segments is, for the most part, inspired. Often such gambits preempt the audience's imaginative prerogative; here, with Harrington playing Katurian's child self and Fraioli and Stephens his cartoonishly monstrous mother and father, the flashbacks register more viscerally than mere text would allow. The instance in which film enhancement doesn't work is a depiction of one of Katurian's grislier fantasies, "The Little Jesus." Even if the camera pans away at strategic junctures, it's no fun seeing a young girl (Liliana Flores) get crucified.
The latter image should give some idea of the free rein McDonagh permits his own imagination. The extremes of his fantasizing are, ironically enough, childlike. When young, we hunger for tales that test our puny everyday powers; it's one way, a safe one, of taking on the world. At some point disillusionment - or worse - is sure to descend, and for that transition, Katurian imagines an empathetic "Pillowman" who offers children destined for "horrible lives" an out.
The myriad themes interwoven in the play - McDonagh constantly pauses to indulge in writerly noodlings - offer a book club's worth of questions to explore. Are authors, or artists of any kind, responsible for the images they put out in the world? What makes an artwork worth preserving? And who has the right to call him- or herself an artist? (Even Tupolski, the bulldog detective, has a doozy of a tale to tell.)
One thing is certain: McDonagh has more than earned bragging rights as an intrepid creator. As you toy with the questions he leaves dangling, you'll find yourself in stimulating - if unsettling - company.