Backhand Compliment


Credit 11th-century French monks with the invention of tennis. Using their bare hands to whack balls over a five-foot net, the brothers livened up cloistered afternoons. Though meekness is generally thought a prerequisite for holiness and earth-inheriting, the word tennis reportedly comes from the French tenez, meaning “take that!” Certainly there’s nothing meek about Pig Iron Theatre’s tennis-addled production of Hell Meets Henry Halfway, a sporting adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1938 Gothic novel Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch. In Adriano Shaplin’s script, an alchemist, a bored heiress, and a washed-up tennis pro arrive at a crumbling castle.

Like Shaplin’s Pugilist Specialist, the dialogue offers a barrage of profanity and profundity, often very funny. On the train ride to the castle, characters take turns bemoaning life. “What’s the point?” complains tennis pro Walchak (Quinn Bauriedel). “What did oxygen ever do for me anyway?” In the next compartment, Maya (Sarah Sanford) laments, “My body is a difficult curriculum. My lovers are failing students.” It’s the rare play that conveys existentialist malaise, but isn’t itself dull or depressing. Pig Iron succeeds.

Much of this success stems from the physical precision with which the actors undertake their roles. Most of the cast members have trained at the École Jacques Lecoq and can boast wonderful bodily range and control. Sanford seems to exude ennui from every pore, while Geoff Sobelle’s alchemist somehow combines the sinuous and the tubercular. Bauriedel’s Walchak and James Sugg’s idiot ball boy (of whom Walchak asks, “Shouldn’t you be chained to a wall in a dungeon somewhere?”) also deserve note.

In some ways, an adaptation of Gombrowicz is a peculiar choice for a company so rooted in physical contact and collaboration. The recently deceased Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz has written of Gombrowicz that “his work is unique in the twentieth century, because there is not a single description of copulation in it. . . . There is also an absence of touching.” Though Pig Iron portrays the absurdity, the intellectual inquiry, and the sad and frantic comedy that have sparked renewed interest in Gombrowicz, they also remedy this concupiscent lack—most acrobatically. Indeed, the clever set by Matt Saunders (it combines tennis lawn and gentleman’s study, while placing much of the action within a wardrobe) and the revealing costumes of Miranda Hoffman make touching unavoidable.

In another departure, Shaplin has shed most of the novel’s Gothic trappings, yet there is still some recourse to the supernatural. The knockout ending, set in a sort of afterlife, clarifies what many of us have long believed: The wages of sin is an office job.