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Brutally funny: U of M theatre troupe mounting dark comedy by 'Ireland's Tarantino'

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It's not too often that a university theatre troupe gets to be the first to première a Broadway play by a playwright of Martin McDonagh's stature.

The Anglo-Irish theatre star, who has been dubbed "the Tarantino of the Emerald Isle," has a way of pushing audiences out of their comfort zones with hair-raising violence often highlighting his hilariously grim plays. Remember in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (MTC Warehouse, 2000), a daughter scalds her mother's hand in a pan of sizzling oil? Or the son in The Lonesome West (Warehouse, 2002) shooting his father in the head because he didn't say enough nice things about his son's hair?

The ones we haven't seen here include The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in which a drug dealer is dangled upside down while his tormentor decides which nipple he will cut off. In The Cripple of Inishmaan, a grown man clubs a disabled teen with a lead pipe.

Perhaps McDonagh's most disturbing work is The Pillowman, a comedy of terrors that University of Manitoba's Black Hole Theatre will debut starting Tuesday.

"I am surprised we are premièring down here and I'm not surprised," says Kevin Ramberran, 23, who is directing the Black Hole season-ender. "I think it's a scary production to do if you have an established conservative subscriber base. People will see it as a bit risky, which is understandable."

In The Pillowman, two brutal detectives from a totalitarian dictatorship are investigating who is murdering children in grotesque fashion. A writer named Katurian is questioned because the gruesome plots of his stories match the ways the kids have died.

All McDonagh scripts represent major technical challenges for a theatre company. There are always prop demands rarely faced with any other dramatist. During each night of The Lonesome West's run, 100 religious statues would be smashed and each day they would have to be glued back together. The content of The Pillowman -- which premièred in London in 2003 and ran for nine months on Broadway in 2005 -- includes swallowed razor blades, severed toes and crucifixion.

Ramberran, a McDonagh fan who pitched the project, says some people might feel parts of the play are religiously offensive but most should enjoy the humour, despite its pitch-black hue. It is that mixing of the humorous and the horrific that has garnered McDonagh a faithful following and four Tony Award nominations.

"The thing I love about McDonagh's work is that he can't stop that Irish wit that he has," says Ramberran, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in theatre last year. "It gets into everything. The Pillowman is a comedy. People miss that. It reads darker than it plays. It's out to entertain."

The Pillowman explores the nature of art and artistic responsibility. Katurian, who is played by actor Akula Meekis, claims he just writes the stories -- they have no political or moral significance -- and should not be culpable if someone acts them out.

"I don't think anyone will come to the show and think it's OK to murder children," Ramberran says. "It asks the question about how we draw the line between art and the purpose of art and the action art provokes."

Meekis, 30, says it is difficult to spend so much time in the head of a character who has written tales that contain sadistic violence against children. Katurian has been psychologically tortured by his parents for artistic reasons.

"It weighs on you," says the Winnipeg-born actor from Sandy Lake First Nation. "At the end of the run, I want to hug some teddy bears or do some children's theatre. It's stressful."

Meekis is working on a physical education degree while performing a regular role on the APTN comedy series Cashing In. Last summer at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, he appeared in the George F. Walker drama Adult Entertainment. Meekis auditioned for the role of Katurian's mentally slow brother Michal, but Ramberran offered him the lead instead.

"It offers me the greatest challenge I've ever had in acting," says Meekis. "You can't find a more difficult character to play."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2014 C3

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