“Bring out yer dead! Bring out yer dead!” from the moment that nasal holler and atonal chime clang sound out in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the absurdity is already apparent. The sheer volume of dead, the mass of humans expiring during the Black Death that would necessitate a cart-pulling corpse collector to make the rounds through the muck is so much that the only appropriate response is a dose of dark humor. But being a stretcher-bearer is difficult business. It’s not all Eric Idle clobbering a willful hanger-on or John Cleese trying not to feed another mouth. It is not easy to carry the dead. In her beautiful poem “The Death of Marilyn Monroe“, Sharon Olds imagines the ambulance men who carried away that dead icon, and the aftermath of their lives. Olds writes,
“These men were never the same. They went out
afterwards, as they always did,
for a drink or two, but they could not meet
each other’s eyes.”
There are the two poles of laughter and sorrow, need and desire, wrapping together in the same body, as we are all capable.
Theatre Novi Most‘s new production, Picnic on the Battlefield, bridges that divide between Python and poetry with a thoroughly absorbing comic grace. Currently onstage at the Southern, a space if ever there was one in which to contemplate beauty and crumbling glory, the production is actually two plays, wedded together in a simple but devastatingly effective way. The first act of the evening is the titular play, written in 1961 by Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal and the second act is the play Enchanted Night, written in 1963 by the Polish writer Sławomir Mrożek. Theatre Novi Most co-founder Vladimir Rovinsky adapted the two plays and in directing the show with co-founder Lisa Channer, provides a crossover of characters that ties together the the absurd hugeness of death in war and the personal trauma of experience.
At their disposal are some of the Twin Cities’ best comic talents. At the opening of Picnic on the Battlefield, Billy Mullaney perfectly captures the terror of a soldier, a boy, at the front by himself during a bombardment. His character, Zapo, puts in a request for company, “even a nanny-goat” he implores his commander over the telephone, but is denied. Company is not far away for young Zapo as his parents soon appear, in order to visit their son, make sure he is doing his patriotic duty and of course, feed him a picnic. If this sounds like the setup of a Python sketch, Diogo Lopes’ entrance as Monsieur Tepan has some of the “Ministry of Silly Walks” high-stepping rubberiness to it and Maren Ward’s fawning, cajoling, occasionally domineering tone is similarly inspired caricature.
Lopes shines as often as he can with his remarkable physical ability – when lecturing young Zapo about the importance of horses in charging the enemy (although the play seems to be set around World War I and horses have long since stopped being used) his phlegmatic testifying turns into a braying and whinnying, until he must be pet to calm down, cannily drawing together anthropomorphized passion and the havoc it can wreak. During a family dance number, Majid Mokhtari makes his entrance as the enemy soldier Zepo, whose history and experience eerily mirrors Zapo – both men were called up without knowing why, both left behind a fiancée (Carly Wicks, who flits in and out all dressed in white for a presaging of appropriate ghostliness) and neither, of course, truly wanting to fight. Whenever they fire, they say a prayer for the guy they shot, Zapo an “Our Father” and Zepo an “Ave Maria” because, as he wryly explains, “it’s shorter.” When alive, whether or not in war, make the most of your time, it seems.
This family scene is occasionally interrupted by two frustrated stretcher-bearers, Old Boy (Jason Ballweber) and Old Man (Christopher Kehoe) who, like a Tweedledum and Tweedledee version of the Holy Grail cart-pullers, are out to collect. For Old Boy and Old Man, the fact that there are no dead to bring out is terribly inconvenient to their orders, disappointing to their captain and they complain loudly that all they ever hear from people is that “No-one is dead here and we’re not to blame!” That sentiment is the surprising turn in the second act, the Enchanted Night portion of the production. Old Man and Old Boy are re-introduced as businessmen at a conference sharing a hotel room together and after some very funny business involving a bedspring and a sexy plaster lamp, try to get some sleep. What transpires in the night is by turns terrifying and complex, as Old Boy and Old Man are visited by the specters of Zapo, Zepo, Madame and Monsieur Tepan, as well as by the re-appearance of Wicks who taunts and teases the both of them. In their increasingly frenetic back-and-forth, Ballweber and Kehoe push through layers of propriety to uncover psychic dependencies, the suppressed traumas of each man trying to get back to calm ideal of life that is perpetually out of reach. It is, as Olds continues about the unfortunate ambulance men;
“Their lives took
a turn-one had nightmares, strange
pains, impotence, depression. One did not
like his work, his wife looked
different, his kids. Even death
seemed different to him-a place where she
would be waiting,
and in the middle of the night, that serio-comic cry of “No-one is dead here and we’re not to blame” begs the opposite – there are dead here, and it is our fault.
It is to the credit of Channer and Rovinsky, as well as their excellent cast, that this gasping, crushing realization is tenderly and beautifully explored. Under this tangled, knotty, tragic and hilarious web of slapstick and drama, we find unexpectedly naked and honest human beings. As an audience, we are left as the third ambulance man in “The Death of Marilyn Monroe”;
“[…]and one found himself standing at night
in the doorway to a room of sleep, listening to a
woman breathing, just an ordinary