Hell Meets Henry Halfway

Poland, too often a victim of ruthless invasion, has taken over my life. The country of Poland seeps through the cracks of my brain, and has insinuated itself into the contents of my refrigerator (Polish sausage!), the failure of my wireless service (Polish technology!), the gastrointestinal health of my cat (Polish kitty treats!). The weather is getting cold, because the sky here is Polish.

I have just seen Pig Iron’s production of Hell Meets Henry Halfway, a play by Adriano Shaplin adapted from the work of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, a virtuosic piece of work that fairly drips with the malaise and fatalistic wit of the East. Also, I have just moved to Greenpoint.

Pig Iron, the stars of the Philadelphia theater scene who are fast becoming an international smash, have created a piece of theater that is audacious, surprising, entertaining, mordant, and refreshingly unpretentious. You don’t want to go to sleep during any part of it. This casts no aspersions on the company, but I tend to switch off when I think of “Dance Theater” combined with “obscure Polish literary master.” Not so. Not so. Not even a moment where I checked out enough to take a look in the playbill to see if they had any movie-star sponsors. I waited until intermission, and still, I was so absorbed in the play that I didn’t even bother to point them out to my companion. No. My habit of turning even the loftiest of cultural experiences in to a subway perusal of Us Magazine mercifully subsided, if only for a night.

The main visual motif of the play is a tennis court–one is laid unobtrusively on the floor of the Ohio Theater, upon which the characters–a cynical, aging tennis pro (Quinn Bauriedel, as the friend you have that’s a total asshole but you still want to make out with), a melancholic, world-weary bride-to-be (Sarah Sanford, dashing in her flapper fashions–the play is set nominally in the 1920’s, that always glamorous, always sinister Europe “between the Wars”) a tubercular alchemist (Geoff Sobelle), a grieving old fart that happens to be a Prince (Emanuelle Delpech-Ramey, impressively creating her realistic humpback with no discernible prosthetic aid), a mysterious man child (James Sugg, suggesting the Life is Beautiful Roberto Benigni in his striped, Aushwitzian union suit), and the title character, Henry (Dito von Reigersberg), a poker faced, vodka swilling secretary who everyone seems to despise–lob vicious balls both literal and metaphorical at each other. (Balls. I like metaphorical balls.) The court cannily doubles as Henry’s office, proving the long-held theory that when we have menial office jobs that we hate, we become murderous, hateful monsters that are sworn to destroy mankind. (Give us grants now!)

The performances are uniformly impressive–most of the Pig Iron company members are graduates of the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris, and their astonishing physicality lends remarkable depth to a script that is already pretty damn deep. Adriano Shaplin is a terrific writer, although admittedly prone to covering the dark side of humanity, and one of his lyrical and muscular monologues offset by an effortlessly perfect positioning of the head, is a tremendous thing to watch.

And therein lies the strength of the piece–it’s juxtaposition. Companies like Pig Iron, who work from a place of physical improvisation, kinesthetic movement and choreography, tend to shy away from plays as text heavy and dramatic as this–or words altogether. Writers like Shaplin, with his emphasis on language, cruelty, metaphor, and polemic, tend to have their plays staged with minimal movement, or worse–realistically. The combination of light and dark, stasis and movement–a kind of deliciously active, angry melancholia, is irresistible. These contrasts are smartly echoed throughout the play–the set, the repressed Henry and the garrulously lachrymose Prince (guess who’s studying for the G.R.E.? Me!), and one of the most and least sexy sex scenes I’ve ever seen.

The melancholia and mordant wit, as well as the sense of misplacement and duality are particularly affecting in light of our recent national tragedy–one that I suspect will color the way art is viewed for some time. (I, personally, have decided not to talk about it if it comes up, but rather treat the subject as inappropriate and too painful for discussion, like someone said “So tell me about your rape” or “Remember when your mother was dying from cancer? What was that all about?”) The tennis player sarcastically expels the first line of the play–“What’s the point?” The sense of being alive in a world that doesn’t give a shit, or dead to the world that does—it’s depressing and nihilistic. But it kind of sums it up right now.

Anger, alienation, hopelessness, futility. We see it all in Hell Meets Henry Halfway, but we also see the transcendent beauty of the small things–a scarlet painted mouth, a cheerful man collecting tennis balls, the precision of a well-placed hump, the sheer loveliness of eloquence. The world sucks right now. It does. It sucks. But, foolish as it may seem, there are a few things in it that don’t.

Me, I’m looking at Poland. That sausage in my fridge is damn good.

Soho Think Tank & the Polish Cultural Institute present
Pig Iron Theater Company
Hell Meets Henry Halfway
by Adriano Shaplin
directed by Daniel Rothenberg
November 3-21
Ohio Theater
66 Wooster Street, NYC

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