Editors' pick

Hell Meets Henry Halfway


Editorial Review

At Woolly, A Match Made in 'Hell'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009

Misery clearly loves company in the Polish castle of Myslotch. Intense mutual disgust, in fact, is what draws into passionate contact a discontented young woman and the cranky tennis teacher who's come to the unhappy estate to coach her, in Pig Iron Theatre Company's inventively physical "Hell Meets Henry Halfway."

It's a good bet that you, too, will come to form a low opinion of them. As agilely embodied by Sarah Sanford and Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, these snotty characters are both bored by and at odds with life, with all its dreary requirements and artifices.

In this regard, they've come to the right place, for Myslotch is as unappetizing a shelter as there may be, presided over by a weird, wild-haired prince (Bel Garcia) with a charm quotient approaching absolute zero.

Pig Iron, a Philadelphia troupe whose multidisciplinary approach forms the rationale for it labeling itself a "dance-clown-theatre ensemble," has been brought to Washington by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Exposing audiences more often to fringe-y, nonlinear modes of performance is an essential endeavor, and Pig Iron, whose highly visual style brings to mind the work of Simon McBurney's London-based Theatre de Complicite, makes a welcome debut.

Still, on this occasion, the accomplishment is more than a little scattershot. Stimulating though the imagery may be, the evening never achieves a galvanizing theatricality. That might be a function of the story, as adapted by Adriano Shaplin. Based on the serialized Gothic novel "Possessed, or the Secret of Myslotch," by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, "Hell Meets Henry Halfway" is intentionally a bit subversive and opaque, a tale that strikes attitudes more comfortably than it does emotional chords.

Over the course of the piece, a gallery of oddballs and malcontents gathers at the castle, where Henry Kholavitski (Dito van Reigersberg) works as secretary to the prince. He's invited a doctor (Steve Cuiffo) of dubious credentials to tend to the prince's various health issues while his fiancee, Sanford's Maya, wanders the premises, curling her lip and awaiting the arrival of Bauriedel's Marian Walchak. He's a tennis coach with early-onset middle-age spread and the bedside manner of John McEnroe. All the while, Jon the Ballboy (James Sugg), a simple soul, patrols the grounds, retrieving errant tennis balls wherever they may land.

The tennis motif -- the floor of Matt Saunders's set features the outlines of a court -- reinforces the evening's playfully acerbic air. Nothing remains quite what it seems: A large armoire becomes at various times the compartments of a sleeper car, a dinner table and the portal through which characters materialize. Always, in the background, is the incessant, unsettling rhythm of what sounds like a string being strummed.

Under the guidance of director Dan Rothenberg, the actors are all fine, and adept at sustaining the illusion of something slightly off. The patience of some theatergoers might be tested by the more elusive aspects of "Hell Meets Henry," but Pig Iron's creative mettle justifies the squirmier moments.

Hell Meets Henry Halfway, by Adriano Shaplin and Pig Iron Theatre Company, based on a novel by Witold Gombrowicz. Directed by Dan Rothenberg. Set, Matt Saunders; lighting, Sarah Sidman; costumes, Miranda Hoffman; sound, Bill Moriarty and James Sugg; original score, Shaplin and Sugg. About two hours.