The Hand and The Hen
nytheatre.com review by Lyssa Mandel
July 15, 2007
I never imagined that one day I'd be thankful for the volatile governments of South America. Then lo and behold, Chilean playwright Fernando Josseau appears at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, bringing to light his mistrust of political authority in two subtle, delightfully spiteful fables. Even as this woken'glacier production of Josseau's eerie two-playlet piece The Hand and The Hen does it only fleeting justice, the script shines with the bizarreness, witty precision, and political underpinnings to keep us listening.
We are welcomed to the world of Cipresses Street, a sort of single-room Bermuda Triangle, with several moments of complete darkness accompanied by superbly moody (though often rather loud) original music by Spiros Exaras. The suspenseful composition, a throwback to the days of Joe Friday, sets the tone for an interrogation. The Hand takes us into the apartment of Mr. Qu, a man whose hand has been mysteriously thieved when he stretched it out the window to check for rain. As he rocks and trembles in his armchair, given palpable panic and obvious mental deterioration by Jeffery Steven Allen, the Inspector, played with slyness and a permanent smirk by Paul Daily, circles the room in an attempt to break the case. As absurdity mounts, faintly reminiscent of Ionesco, the Inspector comes up with the idea that it is Qu's own fault that his hand was stolen. In a glimpse of just what Josseau is after, the victim is blamed and the authority can abandon its duties with impunity. Gruesomeness ensues.
It is a shame that Josseau's lovely dialogue often flies back and forth so quickly as to lose the dramatic weight and control necessary to infuse every line with meaning and deliver each joke to its full potential. This is especially true of The Hen, a second piece in which an emotionally absent husband is oblivious to the rape of his wife by a slimy but intellectually superior professor and neighbor. Allen and Daily do double duty as the husband—simply "Him"—and Professor Lamertier, respectively. Coco Silvera—"Her"—plays the wronged wife. Though the text is brimming with delicious, underhanded references to philosophers and Christianity and jabs at the disappointing nature of Authority, the execution falls flat. When "He" re-enters the room to find "Her" disheveled in the armchair, Silvera says quite simply, "He has raped me," as if commenting on the weather. I was jumping out of my skin throughout most of this second playlet, desperate for the stakes to be raised to the level of the script. The rape scene itself lacks the fervor of a rape!, I crowed silently, and the husband's descent into his title role as a "chicken" could be so much more pitiful! Josseau's plays call for shock value, nuance, and very careful treatment of each word, all of which I desperately craved throughout the performance.
Director Oscar A. Mendoza deserves credit for his innovative double use of the tiny "living room" space for both plays, surrounded on all four sides by white wooden arches of varying heights serving as symbolic doorframes or windows. It is clear that Mendoza recognizes the genre implicit in Josseau's unnerving scenes of questionable morals, but he stops several steps short of the walloping blow this intricate script has in its power to give.