RIVERVIEW — Riverview High School's last theater production was Cinderella, the classic fairy tale where a princess lives happily ever after.
The school's next show features scenes where a child's toes are chopped off and a child is buried alive.
The ending is anything but happy.
The play, on stage at the school this month, is called The Pillowman. And it might just give you nightmares.
"I remember being scared up in the theater in New York watching it," said Daron Hawkins, the school's drama teacher.
The show's main character is Katurian, a man who works in a slaughterhouse and writes unpublished short stories about the torture and murder of children. He and his brother are arrested when the murders play out in real life in their town.
The Pillowman, written by Martin McDonagh, has received good — but squeamish — reviews in London and New York. Hawkins describes it as a "very dark, black comedy."
Fliers advertising the school production warn that it's not suitable for children under 13, due to "violence, adult language, frank talk of death and religious commentary."
No one at Riverview is batting an eye over what some might consider an odd choice for a high school production. Students, administrators and parents are used to Hawkins' out-of-the-box thinking.
"It's art," principal Bob Heilmann said. "Art can be complacent and art can be controversial, but art is supposed to make you think and enjoy."
Heilmann has been in some of the school's more traditional productions, including Beauty and the Beast and Seussical the Musical. He was a jock in high school, he said, who never thought much about theater.
But Hawkins drew him in. The 33-year-old teacher grew up 2 miles from the school and has never taught anywhere else. He graduated from the University of South Florida and took a sabbatical from Riverview in 2006 to get a master's degree in fine arts from New York University.
Heilmann reads each script — edited first by Hawkins — before production starts. Things like the f-word don't fly, Heilmann said, but most of the changes are probably transparent to the audience.
In a recent production of Rent, for example, Heilmann asked that one character change the way she was sitting to a more appropriate position.
The Pillowman brings up some of those same questions of artistic freedom, according to Hawkins.
"There are underlying stories here and morals and lessons kids can learn from the stories," he said. "They're just told in a modern sense of humor."
Hawkins has also directed his students in The Laramie Project, Cabaret and Chicago, among others.
"Theater's a big deal at Riverview," he said. "We've created quite a reputation in the past 11 years by doing these type of works."
Stretching the limits also looks good on college resumes, according to Hawkins.
"As a parent it can be really challenging, but you can also look at it as they are not going to grow if they keep doing Cinderella," said Deanna Johnson, whose daughter, Carly, is in the Riverview theater program. "And in the real world there is controversy."
Hawkins balances the more avant garde productions with things that are familiar to the audience.
"We do traditional plays," Hawkins said. "Those are really, to be honest with you, the audience pleasers. Those are the money makers."
There are 166 kids enrolled in Hawkins' classes. Some alumni have gone on to pursue acting careers.
"I never encourage them to do that as it's such a risky occupation," Hawkins said.
He became a teacher for the steady paycheck.
Tickets to The Pillowman are $8.
The auditorium will be set up as an intimate theater, with some of the audience members sitting just 2 feet from the stage.
In December, the school will produce a classic holiday candlelight processional with the band and drama students.
Then it's on to a production of Bat Boy, which features a main character who is half boy, half blood-sucking, killer vampire bat.
Jan Wesner can be reached at [email protected] or 661-2439.