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SEVERANCE ~ The McCadden Place Theatre ~ Hollywood

10:05 AM PDT on March 23, 2007

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The McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Through March 31st, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. $30 at the door. For reservations call (323) 960-4484.

"No matter the meaning of one's life, it still must come to an end." Do you ever stop to think about that moment? Do you ever wonder when? And how? Painless? Painful? How long will it take before you realize things are truly out of your control? 90 seconds?

1790. Paris, France. Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin pushes a bill to the French Congress in an effort to make execution "equal" for all citizens. Pre-French Revolution, noblemens' heads were hacked off with swords, while unfortunates of lesser ranks would be dismembered, burned, or hanged alive.

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(Joseph L. Roberts) Sir Thomas More being executed by King Henry the VIII (Ian Madeira)

"With my machine," Guillotin explained, the head will detach in one second, "and you won't suffer." Three years and 20,000-plus severed craniums later in the aftermath excesses of the Revolution, a group of doctors gather to question whether death by guillotine comes as swiftly as Dr. Guillotin had hoped.

"Does the head, severed from the body, immediately lose consciousness?" In SEVERANCE, adapted for the stage from Robert Olden Butler's book "SEVERANCE: Stories", we are appointed witnesses not to executions, but to 90 seconds of the immediate after-life of 30 decapitated figures from history and imagination.

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The set, by Peter W. Sauber, is all black-and red-elegance. Black to remind us that darkness has already fallen, and red for the urgency embodied by the doomed before they are swallowed up by Time. The moody decor also attests that death by decapitation has pursued all eras and global reaches, to victims of politics, religious fanaticism, passion, and even industrialization (two characters are decapitated by elevators). A giant guillotine stands unshakeable and foreboding; an erect egress to the afterworld. On top of a Middle-Eastern gate sit three chimneys, sometimes serving as platters for severed heads, as is the bannister of a nearby stairway that leads only to lost dreams...

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At the beginning of each story, the guillotine's blade shines light on the victims' name, time, place, reason for execution, and name of executioner. The first martyr is Benita Von Berg, executed by Hitler in 1935. In a Berlin club, the Baroness arches back to peek under the skirts of a pantyless dancer before urgently warning her friends, lost in drug-enhanced oblivion, of the goose-stepping evil about to rain down upon them. Benita's tale sets the tone for this sophisticated production which presents death to us, Cabaret-style.

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Jillian Szafranski as Benita Von Berg.

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Emilia Richeson as sultry actress Jayne Mansfield (not technically beheaded)

In 2000 B.C. Greece, Medusa's severed head yaks that she can still turn men into stone. Roman politician Cicero's lonely face passionately debates from a table top. A chicken served for dinner in 1958 Alabama seeks its path to freedom. Victims often yearn for familiar smells, comfort foods, their mothers' eyes, or attention from their fathers, Gods, or Kings. An exception seems to be the French poet, killer, and notorious crook from 1836, Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, fantasizing that the Guillotine, AKA "the Widow," gives him "le Petite Mort" ("Little Death" or climax). "My head slowly sliding inside hers..." he dreams while awaiting "her ferocious embrace."

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Tyler Jenich as gentleman thief Pierre-Francois Lacenaire.

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Malia Dawkins as suicide bomber Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat.

Times fertile for decapitation, like the French Revolution of 1789 and the current Iraq war, sport more than one victim's story. "Have I done something wrong?" pleads Tyler Alkins, a truck driver from Texas executed in Iraq by masked militia members. His father's voice answers: "Boy, take this beating for your own good."

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Daniel Gordon as Islamist cleric Mohammed Aziz Najafi, sentenced by Saddam Hussein.

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Shonda Leigh Robbins as American mother Lydia Koenig.

David Frette, the director, didn't adapt the book into a play, but directly workshopped the book with his band-apart of accomplished actors. The result is a highly theatrical and original play. Stories like Tyler Alkins, with its very direct message, are easier to relate to than those told in the esoteric "poetic prose" of the book. The show's roster of depicted decapitees could also stand to be axed a little bit itself. It is too challenging to warm up to so many different and varied people at once.

My other regret is that Marie-Antoinette is portrayed as a little girl dreaming of satin, instead of receiving the same treatment given to Nicole Brown Simpson (I'll leave it to CSI fans to find out if she belongs with the beheaded). Both were priviledged mothers of two, but the more contemporary victim is played with empathy as a fiercely protective mom, gazing at her own head in the crook of her ex's elbow, just like a football, while it stares back at her.

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Medusa executed by Perseus. Warning: Count 90 seconds before you stare.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, but born and raised in Austria, died at 37, an unpopular queen from the beginning because of her foreign blood. She did give lavish parties, and also meddled in politics, then spent her last two years imprisoned. Taunted by guards, she was terrorized with threats of turn-over to the same blood-thirsty crowds that gruesomely murdered her best friend, le Princess de Lamballe, and paraded the disfigured head-on-a-stick before the Queen's window.

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Joyce F. Liu as Chinese wife Ta Chin: "Cut my feet before you cut my head!"

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Comic relief Patrick Baker... the chicken has come home to roost.

SEVERANCE is a collaboration by Brimmer Street Theatre Company in association with New Renaissance Theatre. The play's program reminds us that "California has almost 20% of the U.S. death row population, but only 12% of the U.S. population." Out of the 14 countries represented in the play, 7 (France, Germany, Italy, Greece, United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Mexico) have abolished the death penalty.

See http://web.amnesty.org/pages/deathpenalty-countries-eng for more information.

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