Location: Loeb Experimental Theater
Dates: March 17-19
Produced by: The Pig Iron Theatre Company
The Pig Iron Theatre Company’s performance of Hell Meets Henry Halfway in the Loeb Experimental Theatre was an exercise in nihilism taken to the extreme. At some points, the production almost begged the question, “Who cares the least about life?”
The play was a collaboration between Ivers Visiting Artists Pig Iron and internationally award-winning playwright Adriano Shaplin. Known for his hyper-verbal style, Shaplin represents the diametric opposite of Pig Iron’s physically based dance-drama work; it was a first time endeavor for both groups.
An adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Possessed, the play did an excellent job of bringing a series of eccentric characters to the stage and even held the audience’s attention through parallel plotlines that wrapped up cleanly, if tragically in the end.
It would be difficult to dispute the professionalism and impressive compactness of the touring production; the set design’s transformation of a wardrobe space into a train, then the room of a decaying prince, and then a dining table was absolutely fascinating to watch.
However, the energy in the set design could not transcend the production’s mainly sluggish protagonists. Apart from Jon the Ballboy (professional actor James Sugg), who was the utterly delightful idiot of the play, the characters were a bored, cynical, angry bunch, who would often fall down on the spot, as if they completely lacked the energy to continue existence.
This nihilism was coupled with a theatrical brightness indicative of a world that did not quite reflect the one that we live in, but rather a hyper-universe that was at once absurd and far-fetched.
The device allowed each audience member to judge for themselves exactly where the entertainment value ended and commentary on everyday ambivalence began. As a result, the theatre-viewing experience here was a truly interactive one.
That said, the effectiveness of many elements varied—the language straddled the line between highly poetic, nouveau Shakespeare and over-indulgent narcissistic trash; the pacing was slow and difficult, but at the same time, a reflection on the character’s boredom.
In the same way, the play itself could be read as a depressing piece that demonstrates little to nothing redeemable about the human race in this over-thought world.
Or, in yet another light, the production could be seen as a witty, sardonic highly intelligent commentary on 21st century boredom, as told through the words of highly theatrical characters whose world intends to highlight portions of this real one.
Whether audience members loved it or hated it, one thing is certain: no viewer can leave the theater ambivalent about their opinion on Hell Meets Henry Halfway.
Several student audience members even left at intermission, perhaps feeling ill-suited on that particular evening to deal with the sardonic musings of deeply unredeemable characters. However, the majority of the audience not only stayed but remained utterly captivated by the show, and were among some of the first to sign up for Pig Iron’s mailing list.
Though the show was both logistically impressive and demonstrated a good deal of professionalism, this particular piece was not endearing. Though the play’s language was at times very witty and very funny, it was difficult to watch such overwhelming cynicism, especially for those viewers who seek theater to uplift the spirit.
Hell Meets Henry Halfway was an exercise in how not to live life, but the abundance of style and lack of humanity left some feeling empty rather than galvanized or inspired to change.
Hell Meets Henry Halfway certainly forces audiences to feel something, which may be an accomplishment in itself in this era when so much art fails to even elicit a response from the audience.
But audiences should be cautioned that this theater ensemble that will make them a little uncomfortable while inspiring them to rethink their modern lifestyles. Here is a play some will love and some will hate; but audiences can be sure that they will respond to this play—just not halfway.
—Reviewer Kiran K. Deol can be reached at email@example.com.