The Hand and The Hen
or the Merry Tragedies of
Written by Fernando Josseau
Directed by Oscar A. Mendoza
A woken’glacier production (www.wokenglacier.org)
Midtown International Theatre Festival (www.midtownfestival.org)
Equity showcase (through August 5)
Review by Maura O’Brien
The lights go up on a figure seated center stage, a trembling Mr. Qu, who has a gauzy stump where his right hand used to be. So begins the first of Fernando Josseau’s two plays, The Hand, a piece on senseless mutilation, and The Hen, a play about rape. In these plays Josseau uses absurd scenarios to demonstrate the incomprehensible barbarism of modern life. With hilarious irreverence, the plays address a type of indiscriminate cruelty that is not natural, hard to believe, and impossible to understand. The two plays are distinct enough to be independent explorations of a theme, but their parallels are more interesting. The characters of both share indignation, despair, and confusion. They are helpless in the face of controlling forces that dictate their dismal fates. Though the outcome is bleak, the plays represent a challenge to brutality, in any guise.
Before the lights go up in Hand, a score familiar from detective films sets the mood. The music by Spiros Exaras features the deep notes of a bassoon being chased by tense guitar strumming. The tone is ominous, but playful. This is an intriguing way to foreshadow the darkly comic exchange that will follow. Humorously adhering to the form of a police procedural, The Hand is about the inexplicable dismemberment of an ordinary citizen by an unidentified offender. As he explains to an increasingly impatient inspector, he had put his hand out of the window to find out if it was raining and felt a terrible sensation. Shortly thereafter, his hand was cut off.
The inspector’s first reaction is to regard this as a joke. However, he must confront the reality of the missing hand. There is funny repartee between the police officer and Mr. Qu as they explore ever more ludicrous theories. The story itself becomes more surreal when Mr. Qu loses his left hand in the exact same way.
Screenless frames of varying size represent the windows and doors of Mr. Qu’s home. They are mockeries of windows, offering the frame while allowing anything to pass through. The audience peers into a dissected home, calling to mind the constant surveillance of a totalitarian government.
Both actors are excellent in their roles. As Mr. Qu, Jeffery Steven Allen is sensitive and nostalgic, but also indignant. His constant shudder and twitching leg keep pace with the rapid dialog. In the role of the inspector, Paul Daily paces, more interested in the world outside of the window than the plight of the man he is questioning. Daily perfectly conveys the smugness and arrogance of his character. He is intolerant and dismissive, but patronizingly polite: in short, the model bureaucrat.
The promotional material for the play suggests that the plot is a metaphor for the atrocious crimes committed by the Chilean government under Pinochet. However, the play draws no explicit connections to the history of Josseau's native country. A direct comparison is made to the bureaucratic nightmare described in Franz Kafka's The Trial. On both occasions that Mr. Qu is mutilated he is preparing to go see a theatrical rendition of The Trial. Like Kafka's main character, Joseph K., Mr. Qu works in the financial sector and is persecuted for no clear reason. Both cases are almost too bizarre to elicit sympathy. There is no better explanation than when, at the denoument of the play, the inspector says such things “can’t go on”, which becomes quite apparent in Mr. Qu’s end.
The Hen, using the same set as The Hand, offers a bird’s eye view into the normally private life of an
intellectual couple on a day when they are raped by the world-renowned author
of “The Phosphorescent Light of Peace.” Once more, Jefferey
Steven Allen’s gentle tone serves him well in the role of Him. He is a
professor preoccupied with
The wife wants blood, but her husband is a cautious pacifist (what she later calls a chicken). He cannot believe that a respectable man, the winner of a Nobel Prize, would commit such an act. As they debate, they circle the room, looking like frantic creatures in a pen. Director Oscar A. Mendoza has cleverly stationed the offender on the other side of their doorframe. His insidious presence is inescapable. When the man leaves his wife to confront her attacker, Lamertier breaches the door and rapes her. This is followed up with the rape of the husband. After this last inhumane act, the husband begins to cluck.
This final shame reduces the man to something less than human. The transformation is another parallel to Kafka’s work, in which the last exclamation of the dying character is, “Like a dog!” Josseau’s play ends with the words, “A hen has been murdered.” While the source of suffering in The Hand is undefined, the malicious force in The Hen is given the face of a peace-promoting professor. With this unexpected violation, Josseau demonstrates the impossibility of peace when those responsible for protecting people are the cause of pain.
Oscar Mendoza skillfully directs both plays with his inventive blocking. He positions the characters around the empty frames, as though something beyond the windows and the door determines their movement. The actors squawk with the piercing vulnerability of caged animals facing inevitable slaughter and the audience watches, settling for humor rather than a positive ending. While there is hardly anything funny about mutilation and rape, the ridiculous nature of the crimes holds true to the series’ subtitle, giving us two “merry tragedies.”
Copyright 2007 Maura O’Brien
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