'Here Lies Henry' by Daniel MacIvor
Now onstage at Toronto's Factory Theatre
Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Damien Atkins
Zoe Marin, Contributor
"Damien Atkins masterfully plays an unreliable narrator."
‘Here Lies Henry’ is part of a double bill of Daniel MacIvor’s solo shows currently playing at Factory Theatre. Damien Atkins masterfully plays the title character, an unreliable narrator whose incoherent attempts at explaining his life story explore the universal struggle of finding meaning in life and death.
From the darkness appears a thin rectangle of white light through which Henry first enters, followed by a startling flash of white light that propels him toward the audience. In reading the words ‘Here Lies Henry,’ one can already assume he’s dead. Maybe this is the afterlife, or a dream, or simply a white box of light on stage. We also don’t know why Henry is standing here right now, but it appears that Henry doesn’t know either. Still, he stands before an audience and understands he’s meant to entertain them.
He opens with a sheepish rendition of ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ before dancing, telling jokes and sharing anecdotes about his loved ones for the remainder of the show. But occasionally, there is a crack to this façade: an awkward pause, a somber look at the audience that lingers for a bit too long, or an erratic over-correction of these slip-ups that leaves Henry looking deranged. In these rare moments of apparent sincerity, we are reminded that Henry is dead, and we are watching him struggle to find meaning in his life.
Since its original 2007 production, the updated text has included references to various social media platforms, including ‘X,’ ‘Tik Tok’ and ‘Threads,’ watching ‘seventy-seven streaming sites’ and even Covid-19. These extremely modern, specific references usually get an eye roll from me, but they felt necessary in exploring Henry’s desperation to connect with people and understand the world.
Atkins’ performance is captivating, even when portraying Henry’s awkward demeanour at the top of the show. Whenever he flopped a joke, I was rooting for him to remember the punchline. When he proclaimed, “Let’s have some music”, Henry became more and more comfortable with the audience and allowed us to get to know him. He eventually tells his jokes confidently, does a full dance number to CeCe Peniston’s “Finally,” and is able to talk about his past.
However, Henry is also a self-proclaimed liar. Once I understood that I couldn’t trust anything coming out of his mouth, I was able to focus on his story as a portrait of his dreams, desires, and regrets rather than his reality. As he becomes more comfortable with the audience, his behaviour grows more erratic. And his curiosity about life and death becomes a full-blown existential crisis that is surprisingly moving because, by this point, the audience has also got to know Henry.
I thoroughly enjoyed how the design elements enhanced Henry’s character development, particularly the costume design (Allie Marshall) and lighting design (Andre Du Toit). Henry begins the show in a neat suit and tie, eventually loosening his tie and collar. By the show's end, he finally removes his jacket and tie. He then casually rolls up his sleeves, revealing a lesion on his left forearm that he doesn’t address. The more information he reveals, the more secrets I realize he’s still holding. He seems more comfortable while simultaneously looking much more dishevelled. The costuming helps emphasize how his newfound confidence is really just a portrait of a man spiralling.
Furthermore, with no set pieces for most of the show, the lighting acts as a cage for Henry. Initially, he is stuck inside a small white rectangular box of light that limits his movement. When the box enlarges, his gestures become bigger and slightly more off-putting. When he is finally able to use the width of the stage during the dance sequence, Henry instantly becomes more confident and vulgar and violent in his movements.
Since I sat in the middle of the front row, Atkins genuinely startled me several times. Having been introduced to Henry’s meek, reserved persona at the top of the show, I felt uncomfortable hearing him yell, “What a shitty mood I’m in tonight you lucky fuckers!” I was used to subtler reveals of his true feelings, so these sudden outbursts felt uncharacteristically bold at first.
However, no matter how large and/or random his words and actions seem, Atkins fully commits and plays them with an emotional authenticity that made me want to understand and even save Henry from his turmoil.
Reading the show’s description gave me little context. Having now watched ‘Here Lies Henry,’ I still couldn’t tell you what the show is technically ‘about’, but its questions about life, death, and seeking connection are sure to resonate with any audience member.
Running time: approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.
‘Here Lies Henry’ runs until December 17, 2023, on the Mainspace Theatre at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street. For tickets, visit factorytheatre.ca or call the Box Office (416) 504-9971.
‘HERE LIES HENRY’ by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Tawiah M’Carthy
Set, Props and Lighting Design: Andre Du Toit
Sound Design: Olivia Wheeler
Wardrobe Stylist: Allie Marshall
Stage Manager: Laura Baxter
Performer: Damien Atkins