Maybe one needs to be Polish to fully understand the bizarre humor and unusual plot of Pig Iron Theatre Company's intriguing production Hell Meets Henry Halfway, based on the novel Possessed by Polish author Witold Gombrowicz. That's not to say that much of what's on stage isn't interesting. Known for their avant garde style of theater in Philadelphia, Pig Iron brings their new show to the Big Apple where audiences will either find it strangely whimsical and delightfully quirky or maddeningly obscure.
On the most basic level, Hell Meets Henry Halfway centers on Henry Kholavitski (Dito van Reigersberg), secretary to a dying and aged Prince (the wonderful Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey in a gender-bending role). Enter Henry's fiancée, the bored and jaded Maya (Sarah Sanford) and her recently hired tennis instructor, the dumpy overweight Marian Walchak (Quinn Bauriedel). Throw into the mix Jon, the hyperactive ballboy (a winning James Sugg) and a phlegm-filled doctor (Geoff Sobelle) hired to treat the Prince, and you have one of the strangest collections of characters ever assembled in any play.
It's rather difficult to articulate a clear plot with this motley crew. Often the characters pontificate in monologues on their frustrations with life, overwhelming feelings of ennui, and strong desires for affection. Rarely connecting with each other and often spending most of their time fighting, the characters speak to us, perhaps thinking that we will be sympathetic to their needs. All emotions are purposely flattened in this play where characters make violent love one minute and then bicker and insult each other the next. In the world of Gombrowicz, even death is seemingly inconsequential, reduced to the level of a sports competition where it registers as no more profound than a tennis match.
If it's hard to sometimes feel engaged with the play's script by Adriano Shaplin, the production succeeds with its acute sense of visual imagery and staging. As directed by Dan Rothenberg on Matt Saunders simple, but effective set that incorporates tennis court motifs, office furniture, and abstract panels, each scene is sharply choreographed and organized. The play's most clever invention is the use of an all-purpose "armoire of wonders" set piece that like Mary Poppins's traveling bag is a bottomless source of surprises. Turning the box into everything from a cramped train compartment to a dining room table, actors climb in, out, and around this box, often with hilarious and unexpected results.
Technically, the show is extremely polished. Sarah Sidman's lighting design effectively matches the play's various moods of anomie and alienation to wild humor. The show also has a never-ending minimalist soundtrack of sorts (by James Sugg and Adriano Shaplin) defined by a heartbeat-like pulse that recalls Philip Glass. Though at times a little tedious, the music appropriately fits the show's diverse emotions and the play is skillfully choreographed so that shifts in plot seamlessly match the score's melodic variations.
Even when offering up what seem to be the most random and obtuse ideas, each cast member gives a distinct and rewarding performance. As the cantankerous, perennially complaining tennis instructor Walchak, Quinn Bauiedel is hilarious. He revels in the physical humor of his character, whether scrunched up in the top compartment of the show's aforementioned "armoire" or flopping on the floor feigning exhaustion. Sarah Sanford as Maya, the upper-class spoiled rich girl (attired in Miranda Hoffman's smart costumes), is the perfect foil to Bauiedel and matches him wit for wit until the bloody end. James Sugg seems more dog than boy, but that's fine as his happy-go-lucky, entertaining character is all about pleasing those around him.
Hell Meets Henry Halfway is definitely a different type of theater experience and if you're a fan of absurdist fare, then this might be right up your alley. Though you might leave scratching your head about the show's larger themes, there's so much that's engaging and unusual on stage that it' s pretty hard to be bored if you at least meet the production "halfway."
Pig Iron Theatre Company