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Katurian is in trouble with the police, but he's not sure why. "I just write stories," he tells the two policemen who are interrogating him.

Katurian is the central character in playwright Martin McDonagh's darkly ironic play, "The Pillowman," currently receiving a visceral, bare-bones production from the Hive Theatre Company.

Katurian has written about 400 stories, and almost all of them deal with children that have been mistreated. Now a little girl named Andrea and a young Jewish boy have been killed in ways that are strikingly similar to his stories, and a mute girl is missing. This is especially strange because only one of the stories has ever been published. Katurian writes the stories to entertain his brother, Michal, who was himself abused and is "slow to get things" as a result.

"The Pillowman" asks perplexing questions about the relationship between life and art. Does art mirror life, or is it the other way around? If life does imitate art, is the artist responsible for what happens as a result? Or is Katurian right when he says, "The first duty of a storyteller is to tell stories"? Which is more important, the storyteller's life or the life of the story that he tells?

Katurian doesn't care if he dies as long as his stories survive, and he is willing to do almost anything to keep them alive. As the play unfolds, the boundary between art and life becomes increasingly murky.

At the end lies a question that McDonagh may not have considered. What about his own plays? He is a skillful and clever writer, but his plays are full of manipulation and cruelty, an unrelenting chronicle of humanity's darkest deeds. Would most people care if they simply disappeared?

The performances crackle with intensity. Matthew Windham vacillates between outrage and condescension, confidence in his storytelling ability and bewilderment at where it has led him as he struggles to save himself, his brother and his stories. His Katurian is the seething center of the play. Paul Chaus mixes sinister charm with cruel determination as detective Tupolski, an interesting contrast to Nicholas Diaz's Ariel, the other policemen, who appears more vicious but gradually reveals a softer side and a strong sense of justice.

But the heart of the play — if this play has one — is the extended scene between Katurian and his brother, Michal, touchingly portrayed by Jared Greathouse as a combination of childlike enthusiasm, fierce loyalty, and uncanny flashes of intuition and awareness. Tiffany Greathouse's direction is tight, focused, and appropriately unrelenting.

Michael Austin's stark, institutional set, David Finley's dim, green-tinged lighting, and Jared Greathouse's dramatic music give the production an eerie, otherworldly feeling.

McDonagh's plays are strong stuff, but they are masterfully constructed and unfailingly theatrical. If "The Pillowman" has a message, perhaps it's that life is unpredictable and the things you least suspect are likely to be the ones that get you in the end. —

"The Pillowman"

The Hive Theatre's production of "The Pillowman" poses intriguing questions about the relationship between life and art.

When • Reviewed on April 23; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through Saturday

Where • Sorenson Unity Center, 1383 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $15 in advance; $17 at the door. See http://www.hivetheatre.com/buy-tickets for tickets and information. The play contains adult language and situations.

Running time • Two and a half hours (including an intermission)

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