Richard Katz and the castof The Hanging Man(Photo © Keith Pattison)
Richard Katz and the cast
of The Hanging Man
(Photo © Keith Pattison)
On the strength of their growing list of inventive pieces, Improbable Theatre co-artistic directors Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson, and Julian Crouch have to be considered among the most reliable creators of rewarding entertainment currently scanning their brains for fertile ideas and bringing them to eye-catching and ear-tickling fruition. To date, they're known here primarily for 70 Hill Lane and the mockingly sinister Shockheaded Peter. (Apparently, Simpson sat out the latter entry.) Now they'll also be celebrated for the thoroughly delightful and provocative The Hanging Man.

Because improvisation is one of the company's guiding procedures, it naturally follows that The Hanging Man's cast members -- Lisa Hammond, Nick Haverson, Richard Katz, Catherine Marmier, Rachael Spence, and Ed Woodall -- also deserve grateful acknowledgment for their contributions to the unexpected insights and raucous humor of the piece. There's no reason to stop the gratitude there: The show also boasts a striking set designed by the artistic-director triumvirate, beautiful costumes by Stephen Snell, and imaginative lighting by Colin Grenfell, along with another of Darron L. West's subtle sound designs (he prefers the term "soundscape") and funny choreography by Steve Kirkham.

This group has gathered as one to tell the story of Edward Braff, a medieval architect who hanged himself when he decided that a cathedral he was building wouldn't pass muster. There was a catch in Braff's suicide plan, however: When he kicked the chair out from under himself, he turned out to be a failure a second time over in that he didn't die immediately. Rather, he dangled in place for some time, becoming a landmark attraction for folks near and far.

Supposedly, the Edward Braff tale is true, although I have to say that my admittedly brief research turned up no corroboration of the incident. From what little the Improbable crowd lets on, it appears that they couldn't suss out much substantiation either. Indeed, given their moniker, the story's improbability may be what has drawn them to it. They've taken the unlikely tale and played fast and loose with it, hurtling the action in whatever direction any one of the participating collaborators thinks it might be illuminating and/or amusing to go.

They're jokingly open about their tactics. Introducing the yarn, the line-swapping company members note that the Edward Braff history is true but that they're fabricating aspects of it "to make it better than it was." So The Hanging Man -- 20 percent of which may be improvised in any given performance -- is a series of changes wrung on the inept hanging man's plight. During the course of this intermissionless 90-minute enterprise, the despairing Braff (Richard Katz) almost immediately gets up on a spindly chair, puts his neck in a noose dropped from on high, finagles the chair out and away, then swings frustratingly. (Bruce Luckhurst is the busy rigger and flyman.) Trying unsuccessfully to tighten the noose so that it actually does him in, Braff first has to suffer a visit from Death (Lisa Hammond), who turns out to be a short and short-tempered personage adamantly unwilling to help the drooping man out of his misery. She's not a grim reaper but, rather, a glum one.

In The Hanging Man all sorts of events -- routines, really -- follow Braff's rash act as he remains hoist on his own petard, so to speak. The other cast members, the diminutive Hammond among them, play a variety of types who drop by to make what they will of the spectacle. In time, they come to appreciate him because it seems that as long as the croaking Braff doesn't issue his final croak, neither does anyone else in the surrounding communities pass on. The cathedral's benefactor visits, a contingent of the infirm line up to be cured, nuns slam each other with their wimples in their rush to view the miracle, and a woman leaning languidly against a doorway frame sings Billie Holiday's "Traveling Light."

The cast of The Hanging Man(Photo © Keith Pattison)
The cast of The Hanging Man
(Photo © Keith Pattison)
Meanwhile, Braff maneuvers himself back onto the chair a few times and then knocks it over again in hope of a better outcome. A couple of cast members step forward to describe death dreams they've had. The six players, who arrive initially as commedia dell'arte Pantalones and then unmask, play a game of charades in which they mime various ways of dying. Phelim, Simpson, Crouch, and colleagues think up so much to do in the course of the fast-paced play that the only thing they don't get around to is having someone cut Braff down.

Underlying all of this macabre frivolity there does seem to be some serious discourse. After all, Braff -- whether he ever existed or is just convenient urban-myth fodder for the Improbables -- is presented as a man unhappy and alone with himself and his work. There's something existential in the metaphor of a hanging, dangling man; the title alone seems to promise an intellectual excursion into isolation. There's also a good deal of fun poked at religious beliefs here, but the largest subject that's tackled and gleefully wrestled to the ground is death -- and, as a consideration of death The Hanging Man is welcome, for it views that inevitability in such a way as to undercut fear. Lisa Hammond, as Death, tells the audience more than once that it's doomed. Yet the theatergorers keep smiling, and that may be because the show is playful in much the same way that the Day of the Dead tradition in Mexican culture doesn't so much thumb its nose at death as it pays humorous respect. Perhaps the warm reception that The Hanging Man is receiving indicates its cathartic effect.

The cheering is also for the cast's consistently good-natured efforts. Richard Katz, who must not be able to get through a performance without some discomfort but who remains valiant in the endeavor, is somehow adorable as he repeatedly tries to do Braff in. Lisa Hammond gets everything she can out of Death's self-satisfied manner. All of the ensemble work is smooth and lively; the six contemporary Pantalones are having such a swell time that they occasionally seem on the verge of cracking each other up.

The creative team's efforts are equally engaging. The cathedral has arches that suggest an early Gothic-period edifice. Although it remains in place throughout the proceedings, a number of back and front drops occasionally give the stage a different and often softer look. Everything about The Hanging Man has a different look, which can often be one of the hallmarks of outstanding theater -- and this theater piece is improbably outstanding.