The various stories of famously decapitated heads are a strikingly imaginative premise for a theatrical production. Heads You Lose was written collaboratively by students and features many notable decapitations ranging from that of John the Baptist to that of Hitoshi Nikaidoh, who got his head trapped in an elevator door. The inspiration for each incident is historical, whether or not the details are exact.
“The more we looked into it, the more we realized that decapitation is particularly interesting because of the victim’s knowledge of impending death,” explained director Hannah Kushnick, a fourth-year. “The head is in some ways dead, cut off from interacting with corporeal reality, but it is still alive; it is conscious, but more intimately acquainted with death than any other living person.” A severed head still remains alive for a short while after it is separated from the body, as one of the first decapitation victims coolly explains during his own last moments of consciousness.
The play is structured as a collection of separate sketches with a recurring narrative involving a very practiced executioner returning at intervals to tie things together. This structure offers huge advantages in terms of the range of theatrical forms that can be contained within this single production. There are segments that use dance, mime, traditional narrative, song, and every combination and possibility in between. Perhaps even more striking is the extreme variation of emotion and tone represented by the different scenarios. Some, like the beheading of John the Baptist, which was performed using long red and black cloths and complicated choreography, focused on the heavier, tragic aspects of the material. Others, like the story of Hitoshi Nikaidoh, whose severed head flippantly annoys the woman it is trapped with in the elevator, are extremely funny. Most combine at least a little bit of each element.
“We were immediately attracted to death as a subject which is theatrically interesting, because it engenders so many different emotions—fear, sadness, relief, enthusiasm—and offers so many interesting opportunities for both literal and abstract staging, everything from stage combat to symbolic dance,” said Kushnick.
While all of the scenes are interesting and powerful, it is the comic scenes that carry the energy and momentum of the show. One memorable example was the skit in which St. George, played by fourth-year Drew Dir, arrives in what he presumes to be his plot of heaven. He is soon joined, however, by an extremely large and high-maintenance dragon whom he beheaded during his life on earth. The skit turns into a hilarious parody of Sartre’s No Exit, with the two of them quarreling and drawing imaginary lines across the space where they are stuck. The dragon even cries out “What is this existentialist bullshit?!” when they discover that they cannot escape that plot of eternity.
The play is just as successful and inventive technically as it is creatively. The set and costume design are especially impressive, sometimes sparse and sometimes huge and elaborate, depending on the needs of the skit. The design includes, among many other accomplishments, a dragon that takes four or five people to operate and a giant fish head. The lighting and sound are also intricate and well done. They are very effective in signifying the actual act of decapitation, but there are also many other integral moments, like the one when a chorus of Christian martyrs chases a spotlight that is meant to represent the voice of God around the stage.
Heads You Lose is full of impressive ranges of ability and creativity. One that is impossible to ignore is that of the cast. The actors are capable of pulling off hilarious comedy, but they also portray serious and thoughtful scenes powerfully and convincingly. In some scenes they have to perform some extensive choreography, and they do it expertly. “This project is a culmination of the theatrical work that those involved have been working up to for a long time,” explained Kushnick. “Most of us are graduating, and we were looking at ideas that could be developed by an ensemble into an original work using everything we’ve learned during our time here.” The experience and talent are obvious.