- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

History class was never like “Headsman’s Holiday,” a bawdy and risky take on the French Revolution by Hungarian playwright Kornel Hamvai. There is no chance of dozing off in this freewheeling tale of a naive executioner from a small village thrust into the hurly-burly of Paris in 1794.

Director Aaron Posner is known as an agile director of fluffy romantic comedies, but he turns to the dark side — with startling results — to bring this play to noisy, sprawling life.

His bold approach to the staging is as expressionistic as “Headsman’s Holiday” itself, which is not so much a play as a series of vivid vignettes depicting life in late 18th-century Paris, a city in ruins and without rules.

Tony Cisek’s set is a long, narrow space with a bloodstained guillotine at one end and a huge French flag at the other. In the center is a wooden table that serves as a bed, a platform, a walkway and a stagecoach. Dan Covey’s lighting ranges from stark blasts of light you might find in an interrogation room to softer, more tobacco-tinged effects in the indoor scenes.

Thirteen cast members play 52 roles, which include a very young Napoleon (who indicates that his characteristic hand-in-waistcoat pose is because of acid indigestion), various government bureaucrats reveling in red tape and wonk-speak, residents of Paris, prostitutes, people condemned to die on the guillotine, and an elite fraternity of professional killers.

Jean-Pierre Roch (Brian Osborne) is one of the fraternity, an untested man from the country who is quick with the blade but not quite as adept in the ways of the world. He travels to Paris because of a promotion to chief executioner in Toulouse, leaving his feisty wife (Saskia de Vries) and family behind.

Once in Paris, Roch loses all stability but gains fertile experience as he bumbles into a series of adventures that include losing money several times over, carrying on raucous bedroom dalliances with an innkeeper named Madame Senac (a sunnily uninhibited Sherri Edelen), witnessing a scientific experiment that involves testing whether a severed head is still capable of thought, and vying for a ride on the first hot-air balloon.

His encounters are ripe with dusky humor. Roch goes to a confessor (Jesse Terrill) each time he commits adultery with Madame Senac, but winds up musing on how long the soul and reason linger in the body after death, prompting the priest to ask, “Are you sure there isn’t anything else you’d like to confess?”

A park-bench relationship with a beautiful, sad widow (Marybeth Fritzky) is tinged with delicate desire and a rueful sense of what might have been.

Even the sex scenes have a bit of content and merriment, as Roch and Madame Senac fuel their lust with discussions about God. One of the bracing aspects of “Headsman’s Holiday” is the depiction of female sexuality featuring newly liberated French females not only demanding sex, but also enjoying it.

Roch’s journey is the sole form of continuity in this picaresque tale, and Mr. Hamvai’s sensibilities are revealed in the fact that Roch is not better off because of his experiences, just more savvy in the world’s cruelties and kindnesses. He has had adventures, but to the end, Roch desires to go back to his former life, not move forward.

Mr. Osborne plays Roch with a gentle simplicity that suggests a man of banked intensity rather than a country bumpkin. His true nature is revealed during his time in Paris, and Mr. Osborne beautifully conveys that Roch is not completely happy with what he finds.

The rest of the cast is similarly gifted in creating salient character portraits, in particular Tara Giordano playing an eager prostitute and a disturbingly dark Gypsy, Conrad Feininger as a hilariously overzealous patriot, and Jason Lott as an annoyingly geeky buyer of inventions.

There isn’t much structure to “Headsman’s Holiday,” but that is part of its anarchic allure. Like Paris during the height of the Revolution, laws and old ways of doing things are broken with glee, leaving everything from politics and society to sex open and raw and awaiting something new.

***

WHAT: “Headsman’s Holiday” by Kornel Hamvai

WHERE: Theater Alliance, H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 26.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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