Death is funny. Sometimes. When the context is right.
Mel Brooks probably said it best. Comedy is like falling through an open manhole and dying, he said, while tragedy is its categorical opposite: death by a paper cut.
Shon Dale-Jones knows the difference. That’s why he laughs when Story of a Rabbit, his one-man play to be performed at the Spoleto Festival, is compared to As I Lay Dying.
William Faulkner published that morose, modernist, and stream-of-consciousness novel in 1930. In it, a character named Vardaman, the youngest of five impoverished Southern children, catches a big fish after witnessing his mother’s dying breath.
But Vardaman gets a little confused. You see, he’s not too bright. Kinda slow. He puts the fish in a box. His mother is in a box. One of them — fish or Mom, he can’t remember quite right — stopped breathing. So he thinks some air holes might help.
He drills a few. Into the coffin lid. You can imagine where the drill bit goes.
Vardaman’s two addled minds collide, culminating in one of the shortest, most surreal, and tragic chapters in American literary history.
“My mother is a fish,” Faulkner wrote.
Something similar happens in Rabbit.
Dale-Jones, as his alter ego Hugh Hughes, recounts the time he found a dead rabbit in the garden on the morning Dale-Jones’ real father died.
“I actually did find my pet rabbit dead in the garden,” Dale-Jones says from the United Kingdom. “It had rigor mortis.
“Fortunately, my father didn’t.”
Story of a Rabbit is a charming and sentimental mixed-media comedy of life told from the perspective of death. In the story, Hughes’ father dies a spectacularly theatrical death: as a high-flying acrobat attempting a stunt never before attempted.
As he expounds on memories of his pet, grainy video alights a screen behind him of scenes from real-life childhood. The images are on old Super 8 film. The effect is of a nostalgic metaphor of grief. The bunny turns out to be a stand-in for dear old Dad.
“But the use of media is very self-conscious, so that a great deal of comedy comes out of it,” the actor says. “It’s light-hearted and comic, almost homespun in tone.”
Dale-Jones was born in Wales on the island of Anglesey. He studied acting in Paris, where he met his wife, Stefanie Müller. Together, they founded Hoipolloi Theatre.
The couple’s first acclaimed show was Floating, a surreal comedy about Anglesey breaking off from the mainland and drifting off to sea. It was based on an April Fool’s newspaper article Dale-Jones mistakenly believed as a child. Then came Story of a Rabbit. Critics hailed them in 2007 at Edinburgh’s much-ballyhooed Fringe Festival.
Dale-Jones has dabbled in stand-up. Making people laugh is a priority. But so were stories, the telling of personal stories. And to do that, he needed some distance. Much of his life, such as his dad’s untimely death, was just too painful to take straight on.
The solution? An alter-ego by the name of Hugh Hughes.
“He came from a desire to make people laugh and from a desire to reassess how we tell stories,” Dale-Jones says. “He took on a life of his own. His world is very broad and started taking on themes and other characters. Soon enough, we were talking about my dad and a dead rabbit.
“Eventually, the two narratives collide.”
Yeah, just like Faulkner’s poor Vardaman.
Fortunately for us, there’s no drilling involved.
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T. Ballard Lesemann