Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

“Death and the Ploughman”
By Johannes von Saaz
Adapted and directed by Peter S. Case
Through Feb. 26
La MaMa E.T.C.
74A East Fourth Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery
(212-475-7710, www.lamama.org)

Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Rob Howard, the distraught widower who argues with the many faces of Death in “Death and the Ploughman,” now showing at La Mama E.T.C. through Feb. 26

A heated argument with certain death

By Steven Snyder

“Death and the Ploughman,” first penned by Johannes von Saaz in 1400, first translated to English by K.W. Maurer in 1947, and first brought to American stages at the dawn of the century, still resonates some 600 years later because it confronts a paradox so integral to our human experience: The moment we are born, it is a given we will die, yet we continue to mourn the deaths around us despite their inevitability.

In this risky, risqué revival of the German work at La Mama E.T.C., director Peter S. Case pushes this paradox to the breaking point.

Surrounded by two of the most striking images of life and death – tall trees that light a dark stage and a white coffin that seems consumed by shadows – we are given front row seats to a rather intricate philosophical debate that plays out between a devastated ploughman (Rob Howard), whose dead wife lies in the coffin, and three characters who serve as the single voice of Death: The gleeful Robert Yang, the mocking Storm Garner and, in an inspired casting decision, the surly Bridget Clark, a 10-year-old.

Back and forth these two sides (and four voices) spar over the fairness of the universe and the logic of this man’s desolation. And the more the ploughman persists that his life has been shattered by the gods who have stolen of his wife, the more impassioned the debate becomes. By the short play’s second half, the discussion has evolved from one man’s despair to larger concepts of love and the flawed nature of human race.

Subtly, the play develops a confident rhythm in its precise, almost lawyer-like back-and-forth, and even finds some humor amid the dark subject matter. The ploughman first protests about his wife, and Death mocks him, claiming he should not be sad since all humans are just like him and his dead bride, living on borrowed time. The ploughman counters that love is the only reason worth living and now, without love, he is lost. Death kindly reminds him how painful love – and marriage – can be. In a final twist, the ploughman fights back, wondering why Death cannot see anything worthwhile in mankind. And Death sarcastically replies that there is no such thing as virtue, and all good things done by the human race are only done out of fear of what will happen in the afterlife.

Yet as affecting as the story is, there is no mistaking the dense nature of the aged text and the complicated, overlapping arguments. To bridge this gap, Case has made a number of fascinating decisions. In terms of staging, he has used the coffin to brilliant effect, opening and closing its doors to cast it both as a metaphor for the great beyond and a literal shell that holds a human body (Elli Stefanidi). In casting Death as multiple characters, he’s amplified Death’s arguments with a chorus of voices that mock and taunt their adversary with added color and energy.

Howard, though, is the center of the story, and his agony is palpable. Playing off his emotions, Case uses the wife’s body to provoke a surprising reaction from the audience. Not only serving as a symbol of both the dead and the divine, Case exploits her most effectively as a corpse that is played with like a rag doll, dropped and thrown, and even used as a sexual prop when Death insists that she, like every human, is now merely dead flesh – dust to dust.

It is moments like this that make “Death and the Ploughman” a thoughtful and provocative, in-your-face affair – a mix of philosophy, poetry, dance, comedy and music that ponders a seemingly-futile argument, but proves there is still much to say, and learn, from questioning the nature of life and death.

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