The Harakiri Kane Roundtable Interview With Dean Haspiel, Ian W. Hill, Stoya, Alex Emanuel, Philip Cruise & Alyssa Simon

by Hannah Means Shannon

If you wanted to be amid a group of comics luminaries and creators while mingling with people from many other fields in the arts, The Brick Theater in Brooklyn was the place to be during the run of Harakiri Kane, the second play written by Dean Haspiel to be staged. Preceded a few years ago by Switch to Kill, Harakiri Kane is set loosely within the same universe as the surreal cityscape found in Switch, and following the final performance of Kane in November, a third and final play, The Last Bar At The End of the World, has been announced, set to complete the trilogy.

Haspiel is best known for his already long career in comics, doing the occasional gig for DC or Marvel, but mainly carving out a path in creator-owned work that saw him moving from ‘zines to webcomics and printed collections, particularly following his “last romantic anti-hero”, Billy Dogma and the anti-hero’s paramour, Jane Legit. But in more recent days, Haspiel has set up a “New Brooklyn” universe of Silver Age-inspired superheroes in webcomics with Line Webtoon, starting with The Red Hook, and a second series, War Cry, which launched recently.

The production of Harakiri Kane was created by Gemini CollisionWorks, headed by Ian W. Hill, who also acted in the play as Jack, a murderous chef, while the title character, a former boxer who finds himself in an undead state as an Angel of Death, Harry Kane, was played by Alex Emanuel. The role of gangster George Gemini was played by Philip Cruise. The role of Sharon, a sprightly and preeminent Angel of Death, was played by Jessica Stoya. Alyssa Simon played the role of Orlagh, a dying woman aspiring to reach the ends of the earth. In a story about humans striving for meaning, the big questions about life and death are also explored–with varied answers. Comicon.com previously reviewed the play right here.

But today we bring you a rare and quite moving collection of perspectives in the form of a Roundtable Interview with Hill, Emanuel, Cruise, Stoya, Simon, and Haspiel, which they refer to as a “post mortem”, particularly in honor of the themes of the play.

Hannah Means-Shannon: For all its earthiness, Harakiri Kane is still a play with a lot of surrealism. What do you think non-realistic elements open up for you as a performer or for audience members?

Philip Cruise: Ghosts, dreams, and surreality have been a major part of Theatre since its inception in Ancient Greece. Shakespeare employed specters and spirits in almost all of the history plays as well as Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar, so I don’t think this is anything new. In addition to being just downright fun to play for an actor, non-realistic elements afford an opportunity for the audience to approach what they are watching from a far more philosophical perspective. Dean [Haspiel] is a cartoonist who creates entire worlds rather than scenes in his works. His theatrical works have this same quality, whether or not the play is realistic or surreal. One of the Kane actors, Christopher Lee, was saying he loved how Kane existed in a specific world that had elements that the audience simply had to accept, suspend their disbelief, and let the story flow.

Alyssa Simon: I’m not sure what you mean by earthiness, in the context of the play. Kane is a working class guy who, by his own admission, never dreamed big, and he encounters other people who, like him, are living ordinary lives, albeit in extraordinary circumstances. But they are facing death as mortals, while he cannot die. I think the audience can relate to the characters experiencing and contemplating the end of their existence and what may come after death, if anything. The great thing about theatre and Dean’s play is that elements of the supernatural and absurd (immortal creatures, etc.) can provide insight into our basic questions about the purpose of life, death and the beyond.

Ian W. Hill: Well, honestly, for me, it’s almost the opposite problem. Abstraction is my bread and butter, and most of my shows take place in a non-realistic zone of the imagination. For Theater, and in most Art, I prefer the non-literal, as it is natural to the medium and when used to its full extent, makes more sense as a truer, more sensitive representation of the “real world” than attempting realism–a chimera in any case–onstage. The audience may think it wants “realism,” but in the end, I think they’re always more satisfied by the stylized, when rooted in true emotion, rather than any attempt at supposed realism in Theater.

Alex Emanuel: Interesting question. Obviously, surrealism and non-realism in art and performance has been around for a while. It’s interesting that in music and lyrics no one ever mentions it; it’s something about the a skewed visual, obviously, that makes people take note. As a performer in a play, as such I just go about it as if I’d go about a completely realistic part or play. Though what is realistic in theatre? Shakespeare definitely wasn’t and neither was Death of a Salesman and the like. Obvious examples are absurdist plays like Godot and Rhinoceros et al., but I’d say that any piece that imagines a world, or takes you someplace else, or makes you think at all–isn’t completely realistic.

As an audience member, you’re forced to pay attention a bit more perhaps;  you’re given less time, obviously, than the actor, to put the puzzle pieces together. Some people don’t have or won’t allow the capacity to do so. Let’s call those people “most Americans”. They like things cut and dry and spelled out. Just like trying to get them into Dutch prog rock from the late 60s, or, in the past, when modern art first came on the scene, it ain’t happening. I like it, and have always been drawn to stuff that challenges me.

Dean Haspiel: Harakiri Kane is bare bones in its surrealism where metaphor and levity helps anchor the reality of the drama. Absurdity and humor allow a serious or less-open mind to absorb and confront things in a more generous way. Sometimes a punchline can manifest clarity.

I don’t believe we can ever truly know anyone by mapping their trends. It’s lazy. Individuals are a bouillabaisse of emotional curve-balls. Inter-dimensional, like a Dr. Strange astral plane drawn by Steve Ditko. Put six people in a locked room with a loaded handgun and we’ll find out what’s what with who’s who. Which is why I prefer to indulge what makes the heart beat over what makes the mind tick. I write with my gut.

HMS: Do you have backstory and crossover with other art forms in your life beyond the theater? Can you tell there are influences from various art forms in Harakiri Kane?

Philip Cruise: I have a unique perspective on Kane as I saw the piece when it was still more screenplay than stage play. The inception of Harakiri Kane as a stage play was something that came out of a conversation that Dean and I had at the former location of Hang Dai Studios in Gowanus. He was donating some artwork for a benefit I was throwing for a different play that I was producing. He said “I’ve got a script that I’d love to put onstage.” Once I had read it, I absolutely needed to see it on a stage. That being said, it was a screenplay that needed to be shaped into a theatrical piece and Dean was incredible with his rewrites.

Deep down, Dean is a cartoonist/graphic novelist and much of the early scripts had a lot of “telling” rather than “showing”, which occurs in comic texts. Like a thought bubble (is that what they call it?). I guess in the theatre, the equivalent of a thought bubble is a monologue and Dean writes incredible monologues. While there is a major comix influence in Kane, I also see a Buddhist angle in the fact that Kane, Sharon, and Nicodemus all fit the description of a Bhoddisatva, except they didn’t make the choice to stay on Earth. I liked your Egyptian/Central American mythology analysis in your review, by the way, Hannah.

Jessica Stoya: I took a lot of dance lessons in my youth, and have been a pornographer since the late 2000s. There’s a commonality with those two and acting, which is that they’re easiest when you’re fully present. Otherwise, delivering narrative through dialogue in front of a live audience is a whole different level of work. There’s definitely a strong comics influence in Harakiri Kane, most apparent in the pacing and episodic nature of the story.

Alyssa Simon: I am not as familiar as some of the cast, and certainly the playwright, with graphic novels and using the graphic novel as an art form to tell a story, but I appreciated the noir elements from my love of noir films and the existentialist themes from what little philosophy I’ve read and related to. In my character work, I brought in psychological gestures from my study of physical theatre methods to relay specificity in emotion.

Ian W. Hill: My major background in is film, but I left that behind around 25 years ago. It is still my first love, by far, and a great obsession (I write this on the subway after leaving three movies in a row at my favorite rep house). My ideas for Theater were more interesting than mine for film, but at the same time, many of my Theater ideas are based in attempting, not so much to imitate film onstage, but to find theatrical equivalents for cinematic techniques. Music is also central to all of my work, and I could spend hours or reams elaborating on that (my sound designs speak to that).  Two of my parents are visual artists–abstract painters–and my love for 20th-Century painting and sculpture is huge. I’m also a bit of a lay scholar in comics and illustration. The name of the company is Gemini CollisionWorks in no small part because of the colliding of art forms in our stage work.

Alex Emanuel: Definitely. Well first and foremost, comics, which I grew up drawing and reading thanks, most of all, to my illustrator father. Also film noir, a favorite medium of mine as I’ve played many gumshoes, including android bounty hunter Rick Deckard onstage in the critically acclaimed adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book Bladerunner was based on by Philip K.Dick. Dean’s play creates a cool hybrid of many art forms, kind of The Set Up meets, Dick Tracy meets Godot meets The Island of Dr. Moreau meets…

Dean Haspiel: My mother was deputy director at The NY State Council of the Arts, and my father wrote about Hollywood blonde bombshells for magazines, and even wrote a few books about Marilyn Monroe, who he knew the last eight years of her life. My godmother was Shelley Winters and she introduced my parents to each other. I grew up around actors and theater, but I never thought I’d be writing plays one day. My eye was on making comic books. Possibly movies.

Harakiri Kane was inspired by true life events coupled with things I took away from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Writing theater is a departure from writing comics, but both mediums encourage me to express human connections in different ways. With comix I tend to draw a lot of kinetic action, where punching is not far from kissing. In theater, I shape conflict between living human beings staggering around a square space reckoning with their truths.

HMS: What elements in the play did you connect with most that helped you find a way into it and the ability to interpret it for an audience?

Philip Cruise: The element in Dean’s play (and all of his work) that I most connect with is what I call the “existential angst” of his stories. Not only in his characters, but also in the overarching voice of the story, whether in comix, short stories or plays. Billy Dogma has it. The narrator (conveniently named Dean Haspiel) in “Beef With Tomato” has it. Harry, Orlagh, and Joe all have it in Kane. It is (for me) the throughline of all Dean’s writing. I am happy to report that I will be directing Dean’s new play, “The Last Bar at the End of the World” in March 2018. Buford and Tobias, the lead duo in that play, are also afflicted by the Haspiel existential angst. Shocker.

Jessica Stoya: Even though the rules of the Kane universe are quite strange, Sharon (my character) has a very strong sunny-side perspective on life. (Er, afterlife?) The brittle joy of that “make the best of it” mentality is something I recognize. Since she’s mostly focused on finding ways to make the situation fun, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the surreality of the world.

Alyssa Simon: I related most to the huge but simple questions and worries many of us have that are touched on in the play. Am I really living? How should I spend what little time I have on Earth, and have I wasted what time I did have? Do I have the right to decide when I am going to die? What happens to me after I die? Where do “I” go?

Ian W. Hill: The tone. Before anything else, whether the plot specifics, the practicalities of the script, even details on the plot and characters, I get an overall mood from a script first, and this has to be a feeling that grabs me and makes me want to recreate it onstage to share with others.  All of my work, once I have that feeling settled for myself, and clear, is to bring all of the lines of production, not just the actors and their performances, but lights, sound, projections, costumes, everything in the work, into line with that feeling I have. The one the script gave me in the first place, that attracted me to it.

Alex Emanuel: For me it’s all about connecting with the character and telling his story truthfully, and Harry’s empathetic nature mixed with his regular hard luck joe quality appealed to me. He’s trying to make heads or tails of what’s going on like the audience, and, like me, with life. He’s an earthy yet complex character, angst ridden and sad, and, well I identify with all of those elements. He’s a boxer and that was my challenge, to inhabit that mindset as well as that of thinker, which he also is.

He’s equal parts Terry Malloy, Hamlet and Deckard, a reluctant hero and dreamer; who wouldn’t want to play that? I love roles that push me to figure shit out and this one was a doozy. The hardest part for me to embrace was the horror element, as that’s not normally my thing, but as an actor you have to go for it, man, leave nothing behind. Hopefully those who saw me in the role don’t think I went anything less than 110%, and that’s the way I like it. Dirty like in the ring, and always throwing shit out there to see what sticks. Some nights, obviously were better than others; I love that about theater, though. Each performance felt new and fresh. You should’ve smelled my costume after the run; it was never washed, I insisted on that. Method if you will…or meth head.

Dean Haspiel: Because the premise of Harakiri Kane is far out–agents of death shepherding the dying and the dead–I had to focus on what connects us as strangers. What makes each of us vulnerable, while seeking some understanding of why we’re here. What we expect from life. I believe a lot of people go to sleep and wake up thinking about a lot of unanswered questions.

I’m a fan of Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Tracy Letts, Ian W. Hill, etc. But, it wasn’t until I saw Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2003 at the Plymouth Theater in NYC, featuring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, that I first understood the menace of theater. I remember sitting in the audience wondering “Why is Hoffman in the play?” He was known for a certain gravitas in his movies but, in this bleak play he seemed to barely act.

It wasn’t until the 2nd or 3rd act that Hoffman exploded the stage like a time bomb. It was emotional, yet devastating, and something clicked inside my head. Hoffman, like his character, had been waiting to say what he needed to say but everything in that play, up to that point, was against him. The world was an obstacle and he had to tear it all down. I remember thinking about Hoffman’s performance for weeks after. How had he exploited the limitations of a stage, the lack of close-ups and angles, bereft of music to manipulate your emotions? He just stood there with his body and voice and shivered his emotions into you. Into me. It was brutal. Years later, Philip Seymour Hoffman would actually run into me, knocking me over, but that’s another story. I fell in love with the power of theater and realized it could never truly be mirrored in any other medium.

In Harakiri Kane, a character named Jack talks about his disgruntlement with the way we currently consume culture. He states, “Besides convincing the world that content should be free and allow ineffectual people to feel self-entitled, the worst thing the Internet ever did was brandish the false concept that you don’t have to actually be there–to be there.” Later on, Jack ultimately concludes that “Surveillance has replaced experience.”

HMS: It looks like this whole cycle of plays might end up with a New York flavor, as much dramatic and fictional as based on reality. Do you think evoking known and shared locations makes it easier or more effective to reach an audience?

Phil Cruise: Dean is a quintessential New Yorker. So much so that he was able to create a secessionist “New Brooklyn” comic universe which is currently evolving with “War Cry” which drops tomorrow (!!!) as of the time of writing this. As a true New Yorker myself, I think the sight-specific references definitely hit with an audience. When Sharon says “You know that warehouse on 9th street near the canal?,” the Brooklynites in the audience (who were well represented in our sold-out run at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg) instantly had a special connection to the story.

Alyssa Simon: I didn’t see this play as being specifically based in New York, but certainly in an urban setting. In fact, the locations seemed so broad as to be widely relatable. Also, places like a mountain are symbolic as well as literal and have their own emotional meaning outside of a specific location and time.

Ian W. Hill: Though there are some specific New Yorkisms in Harakiri Kane, we thought of it in production as a more general, fictionalized “EveryCity”, like something from comics, a Sin City or Radiant City or what have you, while being a bit of NYC at the same time.  Many of my own plays center around “The City” as not only Location but also Machine and Symbol, so it felt natural to me here. Specificity can work, certainly, in location for some pieces like this, but for this work, a location that felt a bit more slippery and uncertain seemed more appropriate for the tone of the whole work.

Alex Emanuel: Well, we’re losing NYC, if it’s not already lost. Art, theatre and music that evokes the streets and vibe of real New York is much needed; hell, art that is live, period, is much needed. Now whether it all can reach the dwindling audience here of interested people, who the fuck knows, but it’s important to try. Man, I tried to get people to come see this play and many said “Oh it’s in Brooklyn” or feigned interest in live theatre at all. That’s sad. To me Live music and theatre and seeing art Live is where it’s at. Most people these days seem content though, with the TVshows produced by rich people that that allow them not to leave their homes. Like the lines in the play by Jack, and Cliff about live streaming, taking pictures of sunsets etc. That was spot on.

Dean Haspiel: My first play, Switch To Kill, was a psychological crime noir. My second play, Harakiri Kane, was an existential gore noir. My next play, The Last Bar at the End of the World, is more autobiographical with a twist of metaphysical, and is about troubled people reckoning with lost love and the sages in their lives. Some of the people they meet trade in the same universe that I’ve been writing all three plays in. Stylistically, all of my stories take place in a German expressionistic version of a spaghetti western NYC, where Giallo and the Grand Guignol intersect.

Production photo credits to Mark Veltman.

Massive thanks to our Roundtable guests for taking part in this gigantic interview and sharing their personal experiences of working on Harakiri Kane.

Full cast for Harakiri Kane included:

John Amir*, Rolls Andre, Philip Cruise*, Ivanna Cullinan*,
Tarik R. Davis, Alex Emanuel*, Lex Friedman, Eli Ganias*,
Linus Gelber, Ian W. Hill, Christopher Lee*, Derrick Peterson*,
Alyssa Simon*,
and Jessica Stoya.

*Appearing courtesy of the Actor’s Equity Association

With the announcement of The Last Bar At The End of The World, a benefit has also been announced to support the production next spring. The play will be produced and directed by Philip Cruise and Thin Duke Productions.

Here are the benefit event details:

Last Benefit At The End of The World, December 22nd

RAFFLE PRIZES courtesy of Dean Haspiel, Stoya & Seth Gilliam
OPEN BAR by Swell Party & APOCALYPTIC FOOD by Bernadette

LIVE MUSIC by
*Hope Debates and North Forty, urban country extraodinaire
*Steve Goldberger, mixed martial artist
*Valdaniel, multi-instrumentalist/loopist/vest aficionado
*Larry Locust, Hudson valley phenom
*Goldilocks, Brooklyn rap sensation
*Anna Stefanic, sexy pizza
*Ivan Trabka, cellist/male model

CASH AT THE DOOR OR PAYPAL at Paypal.me/philipcruise
If you can’t come to the benefit and would still like to contribute, you can make a donation on paypal as well!