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html> Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 317-319
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Improbable Theatre's The Hanging Man, presented by the Wexner Centre for the Arts at The Ohio State University, is a half-woven, half-tangled collection of stories, scenes, reflections, improvisations, and musical numbers that asks the audience to consider and reconsider what they think and how they feel about death. In pale, box-like suits, cylindrical hats, beards, and grotesque half-masks, the ensemble wanders through the arches of a looming, unfinished cathedral onto a sharply raked floor riddled with trapdoors. After acknowledging each other, their surroundings, the audience, and removing the head and face gear, they announce that they will tell a story that is mostly true and partly made up to make it more interesting for the audience. The tale is of Edward Braff, who would rather die than face the truth of being a proficient rather than brilliant architect, as his newly commissioned cathedral would prove, were he to finish it. As Braff (Richard Katz) goes to hang himself, the performers smile and giggle at the length of time it takes to properly secure Katz in the harness that will keep him safe as he remains suspended in the air for the majority of the play. Katz informs the audience of how the harness bites into his body, of his desires to take a break, and tells his fellow actors that he looks forward to the next segment of the show. Nodding to theatricality is not just a theme in this piece; it is its core. As the production unfolds, every character, plot event, idea, and detail will be acknowledged as theatre even as they are portrayed.
Improbable Theatre is interested in a partnership with every person present. This is true for their rehearsal process, where actors' ideas, problems, dreams, and obsessions may be explored and added to the script at any time, and their performances, where any spectator's individual contribution may be pointed to as part of the event—even cell phones going off during intense emotional moments. Although the audience is never solicited for suggestions or asked to come up on stage, everything they bring as spectators—their clothes, laughter, gasps, rustling, and movement—are all fair game for acknowledgment and use. On a significant level, The Hanging Man realizes a Brechtian vision of true respect for the audience. Improbable's actors are playing, and they court their audiences as playmates. As a matter of courtesy, the ensemble informs the audience whenever the game or the rules change; the audience has the option to go along or not as they please.
The different episodes include round-robin narration and commentary, a scurrying chase scene with a bishop, a rant from a frustrated general and her assistant, a bout of charades, monologues from minidisk (fed through headphones) of death fantasies from interviews that they collected, and dialogues between Braff and Death, who keeps Braff alive. Death (Lisa Hammond) is the true mistress of the revels. She grumbles that the living often romanticize suicide and while the audience may see Braff's act as beautiful, heroic, or a job well done, she is here to tell us otherwise. For her, each person's expiration is a consummation of courtship. She bristles over Braff's suicide as a presumptuous sexual advance: "We haven't been properly introduced!" Her indignation will dictate the details of Braff's limbo. First, she refuses to take anyone else in the region, and forces Braff to listen to all the villagers who have had fatal accidents and terminal illnesses tell their bewildered stories and thank him for their lives. Joined by the re-bearded and re-masked chorus, Death demonstrates her rejection of Braff by ignoring him and breaking into a lively techno, hip-hop dance routine. Later, she makes him participate in a retelling of his life and brings out his wife so that he may contemplate how his suicide will affect her. Momentarily placed on the ground to relive his school days, courtship, and...