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A CurtainUp Review

Hell Meets Henry Halfway
By Jenny Sandman

…man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man's soul, be it even the soul of an idiot. --Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke
Hell is a bungled enterprise.--Gombrowicz, Diary, Vol. 3
What's the point? What did oxygen ever do for me? --Marian, Hell Meets Henry Halfway
Here's how adapter Adriano Shaplin describes Hell Meets Henry HalfwayClue written by Jean-Paul Sartre." But it's more like Havel written by Nietzsche.

Witold Gombrowicz, while admired in Europe as a highly original satirist and honored annually with his own festival in Poland, is almost wholly unknown in the U.S. This year marks his 100th birthday, and in honor of that, Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company adapted his novel Possessed, published in 1939 as a newspaper serial under a pseudonym with the author not acknowleding his authorship until just before his death in 1969.

The Henry in question is Henry Kholavitski, caretaker to an aging, decrepit prince. Henry and his fiancée Maya live in the prince's drafty old castle, along with Jon the Ballboy, a doctor who is on the verge of death, and Maya's tennis instructor, Marian. The bitter and sarcastic, Maya, fights continuously with everyone around her. She and her tennis instructor have a deeply antagonistic relationship but, despite their abiding hatred for one another, they still manage to have sexr.

As Gombrowicz himself said, "I do not experience emotions other than in quotation marks." Henry tries to humor both Maya and the prince, but cannot. Existential malaise vies with cynicism, self-irony and self-parody to create a highly surreal but emotionally charged play. The ending is very disturbing ending -- but then did you really expect a happy ending from Eastern European absurdism?

Possessed -- and this adaptation -- reflect Gombrowicz's highly personal vision of the world Gombrowicz often mingled the real. The innate immaturity of human beings is the dominant theme of his writings. He uses elements of nightmarish fairy tale, absurd gesture and playful witticism to reveal hilarious insights into secrecy, ugliness and self-obsession. He portrays humanity as incapable of understanding the world without depending on the spurious knowledge and shallow opinions of others (think Sartre's "Hell is other people."). This adaptation captures all the novel's brilliant gothic elements to great appeal. Dramaturg Allen Kuharski, widely acknowledged to be the US's leading Gombrowicz scholar, has provided adept textual guidance. Director Dan Rothenberg displays a great sense of pacing and of space. The design elements are equally creative with the sparse set dominated by a green tennis court, a large hollowed-out bureau, and Henry's desk. The bureau is multipurpose --it is used as entrance and exit and, when turned around, all of the bedrooms--and at one point, a tree. Shaplin and James Sugg (who also plays Jon the Ballboy) have created a highly original score which underscores the entire production.

Pig Iron Theatre Company is one of Philadelphia's hippest and most innovative ensembles, and this their latest does not disappoint. The cast, all company members, show a true familiarity with physical theatre and with the original novel.

James Sugg as the Ballboy who provides the comic relief was easily my favorite; his performance was both the funniest and the most versatile, capturing a childlike innocence that neatly offset the doom and gloom around him. Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey, also showed real versatility as the ailing prince, managing to be both piteous and slightly repulsive. Sarah Sanford as Maya and Quinn Bauriedel as Marian, the tennis instructor providethe dark energy at the play's center. All in all, it's a talented, energetic cast, with an innate sense of comic timing and just enough exaggeration to be deliciously improbable without being over the top.

It's a real winner of a show, despite The s dark subject matter and Eastern European avant-garde- edge may not be everyone's idea of a fun time, but it is s funny, weird, and captivating, Certainly very different from the other theatrical offerings at the moment. Too bad it's only in town until the 21st--be sure to catch it while you can.

Also playing just a short while longer is Adriano Shaplin's Pugilist Special in which he also appears.

Conceived and created by Pig Iron Theatre Company, based on the novel Possessed by Witold Gombrowicz; adapted by Adriano Shaplin
Directed by Dan Rothenberg
With Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey, Sarah Sanford, Geoff Sobelle, James Sugg and Dito von Reigersberg
Lighting Design by Sarah Sidman
Costume Design by Miranda Hoffman
Sound Design by Bill Moriarty
Set Design by Matt Saunders
Running time: Two hours with one ten-minute intermission
Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street; 212-868-4444
11/3/04 through 11/21/04; Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm with additional performance on Tuesday the 16th. All tickets $20-25
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on November 14th performance
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