Friday, November 11, 2011

Alley Rep's Head Needs Some Work on its Tail

Posted By on Fri, Nov 11, 2011 at 11:04 AM

If there’s a single unifying cliche of live theater, it is the iconic comedy and tragedy masks that represent the spectrum of the medium. While some plays lean more toward the comedic or the tragic, the best plays represent both, showing the audience the humor that empowers the characters to endure tragedy.

Head, a new play by local writer Oliver Russell Stoddard that debuted this week at Alley Repertory Theater, makes an admirable attempt at fusing the two by offering a somewhat comedic take on a subject generally devoid of humor: a beheading.

The play opens with Ahmed, an Iraqi insurgent, doing his best to sleep while the ghostly severed head of an American truck driver who Ahmed helped kill, floats around, cracking jokes and singing Led Zeppelin. Tommy wants his body back and says he’ll haunt the bejeezus out of Ahmad if he doesn’t get it. But convinced it’s all some sort of dream or hallucination—and apparently not a Zeppelin fan—Ahmed isn’t talking. So Tommy retreats to the afterlife to get help from a support group made up of some of the more famously beheaded members of history like Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette.

The first-act bickering between Tommy and Ahmed, and the members of the support group, is highly entertaining and is a wonderfully bizarre way to approach a third-rail issue like beheading. And when the action jumps back in time to Tommy, blindfolded and tied to a chair, alternating between whimpering apologies and folk songs into the darkness, it feels like the audience is about to be led into the mysterious darkness of the road less traveled.

But that momentum is lost in the second act, when the play drops the quirk to focus on the cheaply sentimental. Tommy and Ahmed move from playful antagonism to bizarre one-upmanship, regaling each other with stories about whose life is more tragic to encourage the other to forgive their sins.

It flounders for two reasons.

The first is that most of the action is focused on the characters' attempts to forgive one another, though there is no reason for them to do so other than the assumed cultural and religious value placed on it. If there is a list of acts unsuitable for forgiveness, surely beheading is somewhere on it.

The other problem is that while Ahmed initially serves as something of a sounding board for Tommy's rants, as his character develops, it treads very close to the “noble savage” stereotype. His life is a hodgepodge of obvious cliches assembled to shock Americans about how little they understand other cultures. The fact that only the most sensational elements of the culture were interspersed with dialog about how little Americans understand not only smacks of irony, but was somewhat uncomfortable to watch.

Even with the story's flaws, however, the cast did a great job at selling their roles. With the exception of a few fluid and amorphous accents, the performances were unilaterally good. Luke Massingill did an excellent job at keeping his character engaging with only his face to work with, and the dead-eyed stares of Andrew Ebert as Ahmed were riveting. The set designers also deserve props for the variety of ways they constructed for the head to act alone.

The play as a whole is perhaps best summarized by one of its characters: Mary, Queen of Scots, who complains in the support group about how it took the bloody amateurs who killed her three swings with an axe to sever her head. By its choice of subject matter and tone, Head is gleefully swinging an axe. But rather than one smooth slice, it stalls and has to roughly chop its way through to the end.

The play will run at Visual Arts Collective through Saturday, Nov. 19.

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