FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Rough House Theater Co.

Rough House Theater Co.: Invitation to a Beheading

January 27-29, 2023

Chopin Theatre

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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The Dangers of Gnostical Turpitude in Invitation to a Beheading

An Essay by Marissa Fenley

In Rough House Theater’s Invitation to a Beheading¸ adapted from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same title, our protagonist and narrator, Cincinnatus, has been imprisoned for “gnostical turpitude.” Gnosticism, which elevates personal, spiritual knowledge over the material or scientific, gains wicked intent in Nabokov’s telling. While the crime itself is never defined—and indeed Cincinnatus has no idea why he is being imprisoned or when his death sentence will be scheduled—we learn that the pursuit of spiritual truths over those of the material realm is punishable by death in this dystopian world. When reality is no longer anchored in empiricism, one’s imagined and felt realities begin to dangerously distort the environment around them. And such distortions are exactly what Rough House theatricalizes for us.  

Gnostical turpitude and its punishments are both, in the hands of Rough House, particularly theatrical offenses. The director, Michael Brown, opens the show as if giving a preshow talk—a conceit familiar to audiences of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, where a member of the staff often prefaces each show with an overview of the festival’s goings-on and a brief introduction to the piece we are about to see. Brown faithfully delivers this preamble true to the form. He goes further, however, and pulls out a copy of Nabokov’s book and begins to read the first page, as if to share some of the source text for the show we are about to see. 

However, as his introduction drags on, we begin to realize that the play has already begun. Brown begins to confuse himself with our protagonist. He is then forcibly changed into prison garb—an iconic black-and-white striped tunic—by a stagehand. Brown then opens up the book to reveal a hidden compartment with a puppet of Cincinnatus inside, dressed to replicate Brown’s new costume. A miniature version of the stage set—a bare prison cell—is rolled onstage and the puppet, now in the hands of a stagehand, is used as a proxy for Brown himself, as he is manipulated and coaxed into replicating the movements of his puppet double. Theater’s reality-warping potential poses both a danger to Brown—who has been coerced into the world of his own play—as well as a great power. The world we see is mercilessly shaped by Brown—the actual director of the piece—as well the character he is portraying, whose gnostical turpitude may be to blame for the set of fantastical distortions that make up the rest of the play. 

This opening sets up the central conceit of the play: Is Cincinnatus trapped by the theatrical apparatus, or is he the one controlling it? Cincinnatus is not only puppeteered by the stagehands but also acts as a puppeteer himself. For instance, after great prodding, Cincinnatus puppeteers his lawyer, Roman, while the stagehand continues to puppeteer Cincinnatus’s miniature double. And this act doubles as a visual pun on whether or not Cincinnatus will be able to serve as his own self-advocate—will he speak for himself or have others speak for him? Indeed, who is speaking this scene into being? Roman’s exaggerated patrician features (and his characteristic unhelpfulness in aiding Cincinnatus in navigating the legal process or understanding his prison sentence) serve as a recurring motif for the kind of dizzying confusions that abound in this surreal place. Roman’s face is transformed into a full mask and donned by one of our two stagehands (Noah Appelbaum) as Roman becomes Rodion, the jailor, and then Rodrig, the prison director, with no explanation for the many character switches. Our other stagehand (Claire Saxe) is transformed into Cincinnatus’s prison mate, Monsieur Pierre, a vain and nosy fellow who is eventually revealed to be the executioner who carries out Cincinnatus’s death sentence. The audience is left asking: Are such confusions a product of Cincinnatus’s own failure to grasp reality, now lost as he is in his own meditations on his impending death and other spiritual musings? Or are our two stagehands working behind the scenes to bewilder and confuse our poor director/prisoner? 

Rough House theatrically transposes the surreal probings of Nabokov’s text into the liminal space between the real and the metaphysical. As Cincinnatus occupies a purgatory between life and death—between a material world and spiritual one—our many ferrymen who usher Cincinnatus across this great divide similarly blur together and occupy many planes. They migrate from puppet forms to full-bodied masked performers. The exaggerated, static masks only add to the feeling that each character is more of an ill-defined figment than real figure. Both mask and puppet give us a corruption of tangible materiality and gesture at what lies behind it. We, alongside Cincinnatus, learn to distrust material reality and instead grasp at the air for something to hold onto. Is there nothing behind the masks but the hallucinations of a dying Cincinnatus? Or are they shadow figures that mystically construct his purgatory? Perhaps, however, they are indeed just two stagehands who orchestrate a delirious piece of theater at the behest—or perhaps at the expense—of their director. 

Invitation to a Beheading is currently in the zeitgeist. Uri Singer is currently slated to direct the film adaptation for Universal. When asked what he finds unique about the novel he said: “We consider this to be like ‘Joker’ in reverse, where a mundane protagonist is surrounded by an illogical world” (quoted in Lang, 2021). It would seem that the chaos agent, with his singular capacity for terror and destruction, has fallen out of favor in a chaotic world, whose terrors are unlocalizable and whose origins impossible to trace. In an age of climate change, forever wars, global pandemics, and interlocking refugee crises, the notion of a singular villain speaks less and less to our collective anxieties. Rather, chaos seems to be built into the world around us, and its agents are chimerical: masked and interchangeable. However, Invitation to a Beheading also ushers in a warning: To retreat into the irrealities of our own minds can produce its own kind of chaos—and will ultimately fail to free us from the dangers that encroach upon us. 

Works Cited

Lang, Brent. “‘White Noise’ Producer Uri Singer Nabs Rights to Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Invitation to a Beheading’ (EXCLUSIVE),” Variety, September 1, 2021. Available at: https://variety.com/2021/film/news/white-noise-vladimir-nabokov-invitation-to-a-beheading-1235054145/. Accessed July 9, 2023.

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