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Violence and laughter leave The Pillowman's audience breathless.

Fiction writers tend to love the words they fashion into sentences and paragraphs, probably because the process is so long and agonizing that it feels like giving birth. When the resulting short story or novel -- or any other type of brainchild -- is then subjected to the taunts of the public, it can be even more painful than the birthing process.

This torment sits at the core of The Pillowman, the brutally funny show now at Dobama Theatre. Penned by Martin McDonagh, the rather overwritten comedy features many pillow suffocations and is blacker than a lump of anthracite. But under the intense artistic pressure of director Sonya Robbins and some fiercely intelligent performances, it turns into a diamond that blazes brilliantly for almost the entire three-hour playing time.

So what's black about this comedy? Well, how about a little girl swallowing razors shoved inside an apple, a little boy getting his toes cut off, and another little girl, who thinks she is Jesus, being crucified by her cruel stepparents. That's pretty dark kiddie mayhem, but who cares? It's all fiction, so it doesn't really matter. Or does it?

Those gruesome events take place in the creepy stories authored by Katurian K. Katurian (his middle name is, yeah, you guessed it), who is being interrogated by two tough cops in an unnamed police state. K-3 is on the seat of heat because children in the area have been murdered, in the exact ways spelled out in his mostly unpublished works. Lead detective Tupolski and his muscular partner Ariel take turns abusing Katurian physically and mentally while, in an adjoining cell, the writer's shortbus brother, Michal, is also being questioned and/or mugged.

Given the rank unpleasantness of the subject matter, this production manages to keep the laughter rolling, with much of the humor provided by Joel Hammer's neatly pressed and casually malevolent turn as Tupolski. Responding to Katurian's nightmarishly Gothic childhood, he says, "My father was a violent alcoholic, so does that mean I'm a violent alcoholic? Well, yes, I am, but that's not the point." Todd Krispinsky as Katurian is a perfect victim, wide-eyed and innocent, and totally devoted to preserving his manuscripts, even at the cost of his brother's life and his own.

Daniel McElhaney is also excellent as dim Michal, beautifully underplaying his character's mental deficiencies while showing total absorption in Katurian's stories. His favorite: "The Pillowman," a smiling man made all of pillows, who encourages kids to kill themselves after he tells them how awful their lives will be. As Ariel, John Kolibab leans a bit too heavily on gruff bluster and doesn't fully capture a surprising character twist that emerges later.

Sure, this whole enterprise is grim (not to mention Grimm), but McDonagh's ghastly humor always saves the day. (Tupolski: "Hurry up and torture the prisoner -- we have to shoot him in a half-hour!") Those who wish can make connections to their favorite totalitarian state of the moment. But even without that political connection, this is a riveting, frequently stunning show.

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