Serious Theater That'll Make You Laugh
KC Fringe Festival
On the surface, it may seem like comedy's easier than tragedy. In my view, the opposite is true: it's much harder to see, understand and convey the truths of this world and maintain a sense of humor than to feel like killing yourself. "Head" is miraculously masterful comedy, all the way to its tragic (yet still funny) ending.
This is the third show I've seen by Kyle Hatley and that part of the Kansas City alt-theater community that have gathered around him in the two years I've lived here. It is the most substantive and satisfying yet, and I've really like the others.
It's simple to dispatch the meat-and-potatoes of the conventional theater review: there isn't a weak performance in the entire piece, and this is a huge cast and crew. Let me restate this more positively: each and every performance, no matter how "small" the part" (and nothing is wasted), is outstanding.
So let's get to substance. I am a deeply (though not extremely) religious person, and of the Jewish persuasion, the tradition from which this story arises. (In fact, the "questionable" nature of marrying one's brother following his death, central to the entire show, was in fact a religious obligation in ancient Judaism — though not complicity in one's brother's murder, as also features in our story.) From my perspective, this is where "Head" is most interesting and successful, for it captures the essence of the underlying problem that Judaism addresses: how to contain and direct our human spiritual power toward justice.
"Head" has a lot of interesting things to say about this. Our laughter helps us take in much more than we might if some preachy tragedy had been served up, rather than an often-literally riotous comedy. "Head" casually and comically shares with us alternative interpretations of the traditional stories utilized here that are otherwise available only in midrash — the more esoteric but enormous body of disputation about the meaning of Biblical stories in which Jewish scholars engage.
For instance, Salomé here is depicted not only as an uncannily seductive force, and a fine dancer, but as a fellow traveler with forces of social justice. She's friends with the discouraged and hard-drinking chef and with the fool who takes the greatest risks (much to our delight as audience) throughout the show in his criticism of ill-constituted authority. It's not a spoiler to say that, yes, she dances, and yes, a prophet's head is delivered up to her on a silver platter. But why she does this is radically reinvented here — and I won't spoil that for you: "Head" can be your own path to discovery.
Suffice it to say that the meta-message here — articulated explicitly by "Head"'s dangerous, tortured and martyred Prophet and his devotees — is entirely consistent with the deepest message not only of Judaism, but of every other great faith tradition and humane practice: "God" (whatever that placeholder-word for what we can never understand means) is love. For their failure to grasp and act on this fully, we see each and every human depicted in "Head" cut down, as we all will be, no matter how virtuously we live.
So where is the comedy in all this? It is very, very deep, yet simple, and refers to the act of attending the theater itself. Here we are in Kansas City — one of countless human communities throughout the world — in the summer of 2010, able to gather together in the theater to see, understand and laugh at our foibles. Somehow we have managed not to leave ourselves finally obliterated in our millenniums-old battlefields. I dearly hope we can keep that up, though of course the jury is still out.
In the meantime, I think making and seeing good theater like this will help. Go. "Head" repeats Saturday night at 10 and Sunday at 5. Please note that our performance took a little longer than 90 minutes: allow two hours.
read the review at KC Stage