“Here Lies Henry” is a playfully philosophical puzzle wrapped in an enigmatic character and structure

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Emily Schwartz.

In an era in which the very nature of truth is being questioned on an almost daily basis, Interrobang Theatre’s revival of the 1995 one-man play Here Lies Henry, featuring a character who is a self-proclaimed liar, feels completely appropriate. I almost said “timely,” but Daniel MacIvor’s unusual bit of meta-theatre argues, among other things, that time might just be, to borrow a phrase, out of joint. Indeed, using imagery and language that forever doubles back on itself as if it were a literary Mobius strip, MacIvor uses a quirky, uncertain character to explore connections between time and truth.

Scott Sawa stars as Henry who, in this meandering mind-fuck of a play, takes us along on a 75-minute monologue full of sharp turns and content revisions, telling us about his life and his philosophies…or maybe not: there is that pesky fact that he has told us that he is a liar. Talk about an unreliable narrator! He’s practically demanding that the audience take everything he says with a grain of salt, yet the repetitions, as with Facebook posts or political ads, make it all seem like truth. And through it all, Henry comes across as…well, a bit weird, but sincere despite his alleged lies. (Do we trust a liar when he tells us that he is lying? My brain hurts.) 

Sawa’s portrayal, certainly honed in conjunction with director and Interrobang Artistic Producer Elana Elyse, rapidly becomes clear during a highly tentative and circular opening in which we are never quite sure what the heck is going on. There is feigned shyness. There are many stops and restarts. There are strangely incoherent and incomplete attempts at telling jokes. Henry makes odd sounds whenever he mentions his parents; what of that? Henry has a tendency of asking the sound booth to play music so he can dance, showboating in a way that belies his apparently introverted personality; why? We sit there formulating many questions: Is this one of those plays that feature a confessional-style “audition” for a different show? Is the performer merely acting as his own warm-up? Is the playwright intentionally being non-linear in order to set up some point? Is any of this ever going to start to make sense?

All of this bizarre and discontinuous dialogue ends up rather playfully and unexpectedly creating a real character and also a backstory that defines him. His effort here, he says, is about telling us something we don’t already know, but as the personified Time—one of several personified abstractions in this piece—continually interrupts the show, Henry begins to recognize that he can’t be sure that he’ll be here long enough to tell us everything we need to hear. And he certainly wouldn’t be if he kept being as hesitant as he seems at the start; therefore, MacIvor changes things up, and Sawa’s delivery becomes more structured and focused…and complete. 

One of the great things that he and Elyce do is to shift from that initially wobbly, uncertain delivery into something almost driven and forceful as Henry starts to define the various kinds of lies he recognizes. His didactic certainty shatters the early patterns, allowing Sawa to move more deliberately and clearly through the latter parts of the play, in which Henry carefully explores what he has discovered and what he is trying to tell us…not that we are altogether sure we can trust what he says, which has to do with lying, yes, but also with beauty and love and death and living life.

Here Lies Henry pretty much advertises its puzzle-like structure in its title, as the epitaph-like formation puns on the word “lies” while alliterating “here” and “Henry,” and it never lets up. Its sometimes rambling nature makes it potentially hard to follow, but that is an issue that MacIvor clearly isn’t worried about. He might lose some people along the way, but what he wants to do is to take us all on a mind journey, not just into Henry’s life, but into our own as well. Sawa and Elyce do a fine job of fulfilling this goal, making Here Lies Henry into probably the most fascinatingly metaphysical play ever punctuated sporadically by dance breaks.

Here Lies Henry is an Interrobang Theatre Project production now playing at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave, Chicago, IL, until Mar 28. The show runs approximately 75 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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