Hitler was on the verge of marching into Poland in 1939 when Polish bad-boy Witold Gombrowicz published “Possessed,” a gothic horror novel that was the “Night of the Living Dead” of its time. One can only speculate on what Adriano Shaplin saw coming over the horizon to inspire his hellishly funny adaptation of Gombrowicz’s absurdist nightmare — something bad for civilization as we know it, no doubt, but good news for nihilists.
As resident playwright and co-artistic director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Riot Group, Shaplin (whose “Pugilist Specialist” recently transferred to Gotham’s 45 Bleecker St. Theater) rarely pens plays outside company walls. But he’s found a kindred sensibility in Pig Iron, a Philadelphia-based dance-clown-theater ensemble whose fearless performance style is rooted in comic anarchy.
The paradoxical thing about anarchy is that it takes discipline to pull off — and Dan Rothenberg’s direction is, above all, disciplined. The stage is definitively set and scenes turn with mathematical precision, giving shape to Shaplin’s episodic text. No matter how bizarre the dramatic events, a unifying company style (think George Romero apprenticing under George Abbott) keeps the action grounded.
As defined by the eerie lighting scheme (a nice, sickly green predominates) and a few solid pieces of furniture (a desk, a table and a wardrobe that doubles as the gates of hell), the locale is a decaying castle where a dying prince (Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey) is locked in a tower room, going mad with grief for his lost son.
Unable to conduct the business of the realm, the dotty monarch has become dependent upon his resentful secretary, Henry Kholavitski (Dito van Reigersberg), who is working himself up to a nervous breakdown. Without forcing the metaphor, we seem to be witnessing the convulsive end of a civilization.
Meanwhile, life goes on in the dilapidated castle, where everyone is so wrapped up in their own pursuits that no one notices they are all doomed. Creepy Dr. Petar Hincz (Geoff Sobelle), who has been called in to minister to the sickly prince, is fixated on bodily humors and the “divine alchemy” of the human digestive system. Henry is so obsessed with his vain and selfish fiancee, Maya Okholovska (Sarah Sanford), that he hires an equally egocentric tennis coach, Marian Walchak (Quinn Bauriedel), to keep her entertained. Jon (James Sugg), the idiotically gung-ho ball boy who trails after them, lives only for tennis.
Thrown together on a tennis court that designer Matt Saunders has wittily installed in Henry’s office, the narcissistic Maya and Walchak are soon caught up in a furious mating dance of love and loathing. With each determined to outdo the other in contemptuous disdain, the affair progresses from sexy slaps to sadomasochistic sex (inside the all-purpose wardrobe) to an act of homicidal violence that lands them back inside the wardrobe — and off to hell.
Costumed in fashionably ugly tennis outfits and played with utter deadpan drollery by Bauriedel and Sanford, the languid couple invites comparison to Beatrice and Benedick, Amanda and Eliot, and all the other battling stage lovers begging to be satirized.
Although Shaplin uses his sharpest barbs of dialogue to skewer (literally, as it turns out) this trendy pair, he doesn’t neglect Henry. “I can stop myself from feeling, but I haven’t got control of my blood,” the poor chump admits, after catching his fiancee en flagrante in the wardrobe.
Morose to begin with, Henry sinks into a suicidal depression that the gaunt and hollow-eyed van Reigersberg, in the manner of a silent-film clown, succeeds in making absurdly comic and, at the same time, profoundly disturbing. In begging his candid lover for the courtesy of gentle lies and illusion, but recognizing that the truth is neither courteous nor kind, Henry is very much the impotent artist-scholar of his times — our times — and Shaplin honors him with an eloquent sendoff to hell.