Capricious politics and bare bottoms collide in Kornel Hamvai's deliciously anarchic "Headsman's Holiday," a Hungarian play that's getting a bright and bawdy staging in its American premiere at Theater Alliance. The story is a romp through revolutionary France in the heyday of the guillotine; a mild-mannered executioner named Roch gets transferred to Paris, and in a series of picaresque misadventures the rapacious, self-centered world spills itself before him.
It's a devilish, obstreperous play that's a nice fit for the young and hungry Theater Alliance. Director Aaron Posner has a large, well-balanced ensemble to work with, and the company effectively plays everything from bloodthirsty rabble to a comically mismatched quartet in a horse-drawn carriage (with a pair of actors clip-clopping in place as the horses).
Individually, too, the actors often make a mark. Conrad Feininger creates a lasting impression by wearing only boots, an eye patch and a loincloth fashioned from two very small strips of the French tricolor (work clothes, it seems, during the Reign of Terror). Presiding over a public execution, his character is the voice of France at that moment, and the ferocity with which the all-but-nude Feininger roars bloody hell at the condemned sets a tone that's simultaneously fearsome and absurd.
That mixed tone is what makes "Headsman's Holiday" such an intriguing piece of writing, and such evident fun to perform. The play opens with a communion ceremony and ripples with twisted spiritual and philosophical material all through its course of beheadings, thefts and illicit trysts. "I'll confess you," coos Sherri Edelen as a randy hotelier by way of a sweet morning goodbye to the married Roch. "I'll confess you, too," Roch chirps.
Hamvai sardonically questions the location of the soul as Feininger -- this time playing a scientist named Lavoisier -- hires Roch for a grim mission. Lavoisier is about to be executed, but he's curious to know whether he will be capable of blinking after his head is lopped off by the guillotine. If so, Lavoisier has his conclusion: "I think, but I am not."
That brand of puckish gallows humor abounds as Roch -- a naive executioner affably played by Brian Osborne -- careens through a chaotic Paris that is splendidly rendered by Tony Cisek's rustic set in the smallish H Street Playhouse. The audience sits on two sides of a series of rough wooden platforms that adapt easily to suggest taverns, bedrooms or crowded streets, with a large French flag at one end of the wide playing space and a guillotine (which doubles as a governmental clerk's office, ha ha) at the other.
Kate Turner-Walker's costume design features period-appropriate capes and tricorn hats, plus -- in the same decadent spirit as that memorable loincloth -- a pair of rumpless pantalets for one of two frisky working girls cruising a tavern. (There is a fair amount of nudity in the show.) The entire production has a kind of cool sass that matches Hamvai's surprising dialogue, which is by turns thoughtful, salty and awfully wry.
The actors revel in it. Tara Giordano offers a particularly lively series of characterizations from curt to bubbleheaded, and Marybeth Fritzky does understated comic work as an available young widow, a role that parodies romance. The ensemble is always watchable, whether playing minor hotheaded executioners or clerks with panic-stricken expressions that seem to be government-issue.
Of course, it's the absence of proper government that's being sent up in this post-communist satire, which has a surprising whiff of "The Wizard of Oz" in its ending, only without the warm glow of reconciliation. "Headsman's Holiday" is a dark, funny caricature of any society that's lost its head. It's agreeably shaggy and sometimes a little diffuse, but it wears its attitudes lightly. Posner and company get it: What they offer isn't zeal, but zest.
Headsman's Holiday, by Kornel Hamvai. Directed by Aaron Posner. Lights, Dan Covey; sound design, Chas Marsh. With James Beard, Carlos Bustamante, Tim Carlin, Saskia de Vries, James O. Dunn, Jason Lott, Aniko Olah and Jesse Terrill. Through June 26 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.theateralliance.com.