Britain’s Improbable Theater scored a Los Angeles success in 2000 with the bizarre, offbeat “Shockheaded Peter,” and their latest, “The Hanging Man,” presented as part of UCLA’s second annual Intl. Theater Festival, pushes boundaries again. Founders and artistic directors Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch attempt to grab the audience’s throat by telling the tale of an architect unable to die despite a rope around his neck. The ambitious subject is death and its meaning, and many points made are thought-provoking and insightful. But the overall result is low-key and relatively restrained, a collection of potentially crackling ideas that rarely explode.
The explosive elements of the show are physical: a superbly gothic, Edward Gorey-like evocation of a cathedral by McDermott, Simpson and Crouch that tilts sharply forward, and sound effects by Darron L. West that lend eerie life to cannon fire and creaky, swinging rope sounds.
The titular character dangling throughout the production is Edward Braff (Richard Katz). Braff wants desperately to die, but Death, in the diminutive 3-foot-6-inch form of Lisa Hammond, refuses to oblige, and a group of people working to complete a half-finished cathedral (talented ensemble Nick Haverson, Ed Woodall, Rachael Spence and Catherine Marmier) won’t pull a chair out from under him.
Katz is an actor of wide range, and he makes the hanging man ingratiating yet complex. The other characters speculate about whether he was selfless or self-oriented, humble or arrogant, and Katz offers enough variety of response to make us try to figure out the man’s psychological complexities. As a mime, he has an inspired bit, trying to grab a chair with his feet and constantly missing or knocking it back down.
Hammond, as Death, is an original creation, superficially nonthreatening and comedically piqued when nobody gives her enough credit for what she does.
Costume designer Stephen Snell dresses his troupe in tall, cone-shaped white caps, straitjacket coats and amusingly grotesque masks with enormous noses. Colin Grenfell’s lighting further exposes a fascinatingly freakish, macabre world.
Even taking imaginative touches into account, “Hanging Man” has a shapeless feeling. Seemingly spontaneous, off-the-cuff comments are welcome, but there’s never a sense of horror, particularly important given this subject, and the story and characters don’t build.
Quirky Monty Python-style interpolations of song are entertaining, without adding sufficient punch, and the rendering of a torchy ballad, “I’m Traveling Light,” by Spence, is so out of tune that it begins in one key and lands in another. The skillfully integrated background score, incorporating rhythm and chordal suggestions of Lennon and McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home,” Richard Rodgers’ “King and I” and a version of Jolson’s “Toot Toot Tootsie,” is more effective at setting moods.
Satire about the Catholic Church hits the mark, and there are pointed references to war, in which no one can distinguish heroes from cowards. The show attains its goal of marvelous madness when cast members play a game of Twenty Questions, miming different types of dying — by poison dart, shark attack, eating disorders. After the actors break into a dance, Katz shows his remarkable dexterity by dancing along with them, moving fluidly despite the rope.
Moments like these would have more impact if production’s talkier vignettes were trimmed, allowing the troupe’s signature wildness to burst free.