Umlaut saunters silently down the steps, oblivious to the patches of dried blood smeared on the drab walls and low, beamed ceiling. She glides along the red-stained cement floor towards the workbench, which supports the lifeless body of a mutilated black cat and a severely damaged human head, its face contorted in anguish. But Umlaut pays the carnage little credence, gently brushing her face against her owner's leg before moving on to her final destination: her litter-box.
The cat's owner, Steve Tolin, might sound like a vicious serial killer, a sadistic animal torturer or a mafia hit man. But in reality, he's one of Pittsburgh's youngest special effects masters, and the death and destruction that make his basement look like a house of horrors is made from latex, PVC piping and fake fur.
"He's a mad genius," says Stuart Carden, director of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, opening Sat., July 14. "He's an incredible technical craftsman."
Carden is drawing on Tolin's expertise for this dark comedy by Martin McDonagh, which requires gunshot wounds, blood splatters and -- the play's driving force -- a realistic dead cat. The Lieutenant of Inishmore is not often produced, because the effects can be very expensive and creatively demanding, Carden says; he believes that Tolin's effects will surpass those of last year's Broadway production, working "more realistically and more dramatically."
Tolin says he is excited about working with actors on stage, and exploring the violent aspects of a play like The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He also spends a lot of time doing far less gory work for television and movies -- "I try really hard not to be pigeon-holed into being a blood guy or bullet guy," says Tolin.
"It's a right- [and] left-brain kind of activity," Tolin says about his craft. Indeed, it would require anyone's entire brain to wrap their mind around the irony of a self-proclaimed cat lover, using his own pets to help him design an anatomically correct cat missing the majority of his head. Especially since he fashioned it on the workbench that sits cattycorner to their litter-boxes.
Yet Tolin says that he and his fiancée's three feline companions made fast friends with his creation -- dubbed "Wee Thomas" -- which bodes well for the play. If you can fool a cat with a fake cat then surely you can fool an audience.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore opens Sat., July 14. Previews Thu., July 12 and Fri., July 13; continues through Aug. 4. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org