When I heard that Interrobang Theatre Project was continuing its eleventh season with a reprise of Canadian actor and playwright Daniel MacIvor's punningly titled “Here Lies Henry,” which had been shut down in March 2020 by COVID-19, I was delighted. I hadn't seen the live show, itself a revival of the company's very first production almost a decade earlier, but I was pretty sure the one-man play, which had premiered in Toronto in 1995, would fit the digital format well.
It does — but not quite as well as I expected. This “Here Lies Henry” is a straightforward video recording of Scott Sawa's bravura performance as Henry Tom Gallery on a bare stage before a live audience in a tiny theater. Directed by artistic producer Elana Elyce, it features basic lighting design by Michelle E. Benda and sound design by Timothy McNulty, as well as video production by Timmy Samuel/Starbelly Studios.
Because digital theater has come so far so fast during the pandemic, their effort doesn't achieve the same intimacy or have as much of an impact as it might if it had been created specifically for virtual viewing. During the 75 minutes of the seemingly rambling monologue, I found myself thinking how a close up here, a different angle there, or a lighting or sound effect could have enhanced the experience. And when Sawa directly engaged the theater audience — sometimes with bits that updated the script — it was oddly distancing. So were the grunts of approval made by some audience members.
Still, Henry's monologue is not as rambling as it may seem. A self-described liar — cunningly portrayed by Sawa — he's deceptive in the way he sucks us in with chimerical clues, then ultimately ties everything, or almost, together. His musings on life, death, love, loss, beauty, truth, time and a whole lot more are replete with allusions and word play as they range from enraged to hopeful, even if he does describe hope as a shard in the heart.
At first, Henry comes across as a shy stand-up comedian grappling with his first gig. Dressed in costume designer LaVisa Williams' light jacket, pants and short-sleeve shirt and sporting matching orange bowtie, pocket square and suspenders, he looks and sounds awkward as he launches into bad jokes that he can't manage to finish. When he starts talking about his parents, every mention of his father is accompanied by a cough and of his mother by a high-pitched giggle. Now and again, he calls for music and does a little dance, proclaiming “let's have fun.”
He's such an unreliable narrator that we can't believe anything he says, even something as simple as whether his mother is a nurse or a waitress or a waitress who dresses like a nurse. His litany of the things he's been and done in his life defies belief. But his description of the eight different kinds of lies is a reminder of who we're dealing with.
Henry also conjures up a dark mystery. He ominously refers to the body in the next room a few times and discusses a house fire in considerable detail, implying more than once that as a child he burned his house down. But then toward the end, in an apparent stripped-down confessional mode, he suggests that none of this is true.
Or is it?
I'm not sure what we're supposed to make of “Here Lies Henry.” Yes, it's a trip into the dark recesses of a disturbed mind trying to deal with childhood or adult trauma or traumas, but other than showing off MacIvor's cleverness and Sawa's acting chops, it doesn't have much to say that's new.
On the other hand, this portrait of a man who is essentially isolated does suit the times, especially considering it was written 25 years ago when the world was very different. Or was it?