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There’s a French flag at one end of the H Street Playhouse, a guillotine at the other, and in between, the Theater Alliance is taking enjoyable liberté in illustrating all kinds of égalité and fraternité. Kornel Hamvai’s darkly absurdist comedy, Headsman’s Holiday—about a guileless village executioner who travels to Paris, circa 1794—is every bit as disjointed as the various folks whose heads roll off the evening’s imaginatively functional chopping block. But if the play’s pieces don’t add up to a particularly coherent or purposeful whole, they’re still amusing in themselves.
Amusing to us, that is, not to the titular guillotinist, Roch (Brian Osborne), who wanders revolutionary France experiencing the era’s pandemonium and emerging with his Candide-like innocence largely intact. Arriving in Paris, Roch settles into a hotel for executioners, where he and his fellow headsmen talk shop (“We have a professional relationship with the condemned”) while awaiting assignments. The new arrival intends to remain faithful to his wife, until he meets a chambermaid who can’t decide whether she’d rather seduce him or talk religion. She compromises by chattering away about God while they’re humping.
Visiting a chapel afterward to confess his adultery, he queries the priest about the location of the soul, noting that it can’t be in the torso because a man who is disembowelled—“Are you sure you’ve confessed all your sins?” wonders the priest—can still repent. Roch’s encounters with a fortuneteller (he pays her to read her own palm) and a widow seeking compensation for her husband’s wrongful death by executioner (the husband was cheering at a beheading when the headsman slipped in a pool of blood on the platform and came crashing down atop him) are equally outré. So is the deal he strikes with an Enlightenment author who, figuring some knowledge should come from his beheading, writes a manuscript about the moment of death and asks Roch to report back to his publisher whether the last sentence should indicate that his severed head blinked or did not blink.
These and the raft of similarly bizarre incidents with which Hamvai illustrates the conflicting impulses of a society in crisis are explored in a rambunctious American premiere staging by Aaron Posner that’s approximately as smart—and engagingly scattered—about visuals as the Hungarian playwright is about ideas. The evening’s kaleidoscopic opening moments are representative: The director has Roch raise bloody hands heavenward to ask forgiveness at a church mass that’s backed by that huge French flag, deftly linking church, state, and death as a revolutionary trinity. Seconds later, a bare-breasted woman is led to the guillotine by a loincloth- and eye-patch-wearing monster who turns out to be Roch’s boss. And no sooner has the blade fallen than the tone shifts to comedy, with Roch complaining to his wife that she shouldn’t have opened his mail—a letter that, because he is illiterate, he must ask her to read for him.
Like Václav Havel, a Czech playwright who also uses absurdism to convey the discombobulation of a society tearing itself apart, Hamvai believes perhaps overfervently in the comic value of irony. The notion of professional killers having difficulties with death—being unable to commit suicide, for instance, or arguing over whether to assassinate their boss—strikes him as funny enough to warrant extended scenes, even if they don’t move the story forward. So it’s helpful that Posner is good at soft-pedaling jokes and finding ways for his cast to understate punch lines so that the humor sneaks up on the audience.
He’s so good at it, in fact, that I found myself thinking I detected jests where none were actually intended—in character names, for instance. There’s no mistaking who Bonaparte, a young soldier suffering from indigestion, is supposed to be (especially when he sticks one hand into his clothing to stifle chest pain), but names that I was hearing as “Chardonnay” and “Courvoisier” (I must have been thirsty) turned out to be spelled “Charpennet” and “Lavoisier” in the program. I spent quite a while trying to puzzle out why the author dubbed one of his 18th-century executioners after the 19th-century composer Camille Saint-Saëns only to discover that he’d actually called him Sanson. And I never did figure out whether the title character was saying he hailed from a town called Ennui (as in boredom), or Anouilh (as in the French 20th-century absurdist). Frankly, it’s decently funny either way, but he might well have been saying Lanui, so who knows?
Though the director can give fizz to individual moments—say, by imagining how a one-armed man might put air quotes around the word “profession” or by creating a hot-air-balloon ride in a decidedly low-ceilinged space—he can’t unilaterally give Headsman’s Holiday a dramatic arc that might sustain attention through the show’s drier patches. Osborne’s put-upon sweetness in the title role gives the evening a center, but Hamvai has given him only a collection of sketches to wander through.
The director’s solution is to keep things bustling, with his cast transforming the rough-hewn planking of Tony Cisek’s setting into stagecoaches and abattoirs, bursting into song, and generally carousing. Sherri Edelen is amusing as the inquisitive chambermaid, who swears she won’t remember Roch even as she’s screwing him; Conrad Feininger makes a series of sharply delineated impressions as a snarling headsman, a condemned intellectual, and a distracted administrator. Marybeth Fritzky is sweetly ambivalent as a recent widow who isn’t quite sure whether she’s being romanced—or whether she’s shocked or pleased if she is.
Dan Covey’s lighting focuses attention effectively in a long, narrow playing area, while also providing shadows as modest cover for the performers as they execute some up-close nude scenes. Kate Turner-Walker’s character-defining costumes have a lived-in quality (when a valise of women’s clothing is said to be lice-infested, you won’t question it for a second), and Chas Marsh’s sound design provides the chirping birds that can turn a platform into a park.
Turning Headsman’s Holiday into an actual play would be a more impressive trick. In the evening’s final scenes, in which Roch finally gets his wish to be “swallowed up by the sky,” Hamvai seems to be aiming for the ache of pathos, but the intellectual vaudeville he’s constructed can support just an air of bittersweetness. As the hero plays straight man in sketch after comic sketch, we come to like him well enough but not really to know him.CP