COLUMBIA — When Judith Sebesta saw "The Pillowman" on Broadway, it left her speechless.
"I've never seen an audience so mesmerized, creeped out, scared," she said. "People were literally jumping out of their seats during the show, and during intermission everybody was just silent because they were just so blown away by what they had seen.
What: MU Department of Theatre's production of "The Pillowman," a play written by Martin McDonagh
When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; and 8 p.m. Tuesday to Nov. 20
Where: Rhynsburger Theatre, 129 Fine Arts Building, Hitt Street and University Avenue, MU
Admission: $12 for adults, $10 for MU faculty and staff, and $8 for students and seniors. It is the Theatre Department's policy not to admit children under age 5.
Warning: Mature language and extreme violence.
"And at that moment I said, 'I have got to direct this play.'"
Sebesta, a theater professor at MU, had her first experience with "The Pillowman" when it burst onto Broadway in 2005 featuring well-known actors Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum. Now, with the help of the MU Department of Theatre's faculty members and students, Sebesta is living out her directing dream.
"I proposed it to the faculty last spring, and most of them knew about it," Sebesta said, adding that the play was up for a Tony in 2005. "They were pretty on-board from the moment that I said I wanted to direct it. And I knew I also needed to take some time to make sure I had the actors that I needed for it. Some tough roles, some emotionally so draining."
Unlike the department's October musical production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," this play might not appeal to the masses. Darkly humorous and sometimes uncomfortably violent, "The Pillowman," by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, dares audience members to stay in their seats long enough to decipher a world full of twisted characters.
The play is set in an unnamed totalitarian state where Katurian, played by senior Zach Brown, expresses himself through nightmarish stories that often include violent acts against children. He is arrested when detectives Ariel and Tupolski, played by graduate students Kevin McFillen and Charles Willis, respectively, discover his stories are strikingly similar to recent child murders in the community. Katurian's brother Michal, played by junior Matt Davis, becomes entangled in the conflict, and Katurian struggles to save himself, Michal and his stories from possible extermination.
Sebesta knows the play asks a lot of audiences.
"We are being very careful to make sure all audiences know it is violent," Sebesta said. "Actually, the more controversial things to me are the very, very politically incorrect references to Jewish people, to Chinese people ... but the violence that is done to children can be some of the most offensive."
Deciding whether to cast children in the production was one of Sebesta's toughest choices, she said. After weighing the potential emotional impact of the show's content on children, she decided to cast an undergraduate student, sophomore Constance Stanley, in all of the child roles.
"I just decided I didn't want to go the children route unless I absolutely had to," Sebesta said. "So far, she's just fabulous. I hope it works out because even with as young-looking as Constance looks, it's not quite as shocking as it would be if we had an 11-year-old kid up there. "
But the play is not only about the shock factor or the dark subject matter; it's also funny.
"McDonagh ... uses comedy from the start, so the audience gets used to the comedy," Sebesta said. "Because if he did violence first, then I don't know how the audience would then laugh. So it is really built into the script. It is a challenge once the violence really gets rolling, to find the lighter moments because there are some. Even almost to the end of the play, McDonagh is infusing it with some bizarre comedy."
The production team has found ways of incorporating McDonagh's off-kilter sense of humor into the design.
Costume designer Kerri Packard was inspired by 1950s advertisements and the movie "Pleasantville" while conceiving the look of Katurian's mother, who is played by junior Zack Ruesler.
Set designer Pat Atkinson used rainbow wallpaper in both Michal and Katurian's rooms, but to contrast Michal's torture-filled early years to Katurian's inspired childhood, he added lightning bolts to Michal's side. The play is littered with this kind of dichotomy, opposite emotions one after the other.
"It's one of those things where you might cringe and then you laugh," Atkinson said. "Or vice-versa, you laugh and then all of the sudden you're hit with something terrible. And that's the fun and intriguing part of it."
Humor is only one of the facets of Katurian's character, said Brown, who has spent months peeling away the layers of Katurian's personality in preparation for opening night. To him, Katurian is a smart aleck at times, but he also spends much of his time observing the world around him, living inside his head.
"You don't want an audience to sit there and be like, 'This is so heavy,'" Brown said. "They'll just try to emotionally detach themselves because it's too much for them. ... We're really trying ways to invite the audience in, to let them know that it's OK to laugh at some parts while dealing with the emotional complexity of all the characters."
But there are moments when both the characters and the actors playing them find it difficult to laugh.
Fight director Adrianne Adderley, who recently finished a dissertation on stage violence, is there to make sure "The Pillowman" is a safe experience. She starts out every choreography session with a round of hugs.
"Some of them are distressed by having to do it at all," Adderley said. "And that's why all the stupid jokes, that's why all the ghoulishness, that's why all the hugs. I just want to make sure that everybody stays in a good place rather than permitting themselves to be overwhelmed by the kind of grim, negative thoughts that are there."
Both Brown and Willis mentioned focusing on the choreography as a way to detach themselves from the emotion of the scenes without taking away the realism of their actions. Still, Brown finds himself taking a step back before acting out the violence, he said.
"It's going to be really hard for me to know that my mother, or people — my family and my friends — are seeing me do this," Brown said. "But I tell myself, this is what acting is. If this is what you want to do, this is your passion, then you have to do it, you have to overcome it."
People may see something of themselves in the characters and how they struggle with internal conflicts, Brown said. For Adderley, "The Pillowman" teaches audiences about the human condition.
"It's not easy for us to see ourselves in other people a lot of the time," Adderley said. "You see somebody who appears to be choking and dying, your heart goes out to them, and that's a good experience for a human being to have, even though it's not a pleasant experience."
Though the play encompasses a wide range of topics — including the nature of art, criticism of art, storytelling and abuse — as director, Sebesta made clear to the actors and the production team that she wanted immortality to be a prominent theme throughout the show.
Many writers aim to leave a legacy through their work, and this is true for Katurian. "One of his motivations or goals is he wants his stories to live on and achieve immortality that way," Sebesta said.
As the curtain falls, "The Pillowman" might achieve its own immortality as audience members leave the theater.
"I think it's really going to make the audience think," Brown said, "and that's what you should do in theater. You should have them go away at least wanting to engage in a conversation about it."
It is worth staying to the end of the roller coaster ride, Willis said.
"It's not one of those plays that leaves you without a sense of completeness, catharsis," Willis said. "This is a play that definitely leaves you with a strong sense of finish."