Secret dread and inward horror

England’s Improbable Theatre is back in Minneapolis with another disturbing comedy.

Niels Strandskov

The time required to kill a human being by hanging can vary considerably. Some improvised suicides-by-hanging meet with alarmingly quick success – elapsed times from drop to death of under a minute are not unheard of. However, the Improbable Theatre, England’s demented absurdist theater troupe has chosen to stretch the process to 90 minutes.

“The Hanging Man,” Improbable Theatre’s meditation on death, living and great cathedrals, is being presented this week with the joint support of the Walker Art Center and Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Frequent visitors to the Jeune Lune will, in fact, find many similarities between that company’s work and that of the Improbable Theatre.

Like the Jeune Lune, the Improbable Theatre uses broad humor with a strong improvisational and commedia dell’Arte influence to convey subtle points. Actors can break character to address the audience directly and anachronisms abound. In “The Hanging Man,” for instance, one actor distributes mini-disc recordings of the actors’ dreams to the rest of the cast who then listen to them and recite them back to the audience.

The play begins with a mumbling surge of six actors, masked and dressed in white. They wear large, tubular hats that simultaneously suggest commedia dell’Arte costuming, Sufi dervishes and Hugo Ball’s Dada sorcerer outfit. The players introduce the story, cautioning the audience that this fiction is not to be trusted as they sometimes embellish it a bit for their own purposes.

The action really gets underway with a hanging as cathedral architect Edward Braff kicks a chair out from under him and begins his final dance. Unfortunately for him, a peevish Death stomps up from the underworld and demands that he explain why he should be allowed to die. Death sees herself as a great lover, a force that meets, courts and caresses her charges until finally, she takes them. (Death is portrayed by an extremely short woman, a visual pun on the French euphemism “le petit mort,” which refers to an orgasm.)

Death feels that Braff has not paid enough attention to the metaphysical side of life and elects to stop killing until he is truly ready to die. Of course, this presents some problems, not the least of which are Braff’s as he chaffs inside his homemade noose. Other characters come and go, sometimes in horror and sometimes to thank Braff for keeping Death preoccupied so they can live.

“The Hanging Man” refuses to offer pat answers to life’s great existential mysteries. There is fatalism to the script, but the philosophy of the play transcends the tautological statement that all living things must die. It might be, according to this play, that death is all about finality, but the play also contends quite strongly that we should not imagine our deaths to be “whip-crack” quick as the snap of cervical vertebrae. Death is a process. “The Hanging Man’s” best point about death could be expressed in the simple question “are you living?”

Our culture’s curious on-again, off-again relationship with death won’t be reconciled by one play. However, the ideas generated by the process of putting ourselves in Death’s shoes for an hour and a half can resonate deeply. A holistic, healthy relationship with death is too much to hope for, assuredly. But perhaps “The Hanging Man’s” audience can serve to propagate a deeper connection with death throughout the culture, or die trying.