By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
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By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
If the “Marseillaise” announced the birth of Europe‘s bloody romance with ideology, then the “Polonaise Militaire” can be said to have been its death knell. A century and a half after the storming of the Bastille, Radio Warsaw continuously played Chopin’s jaunty melody against the German blitzkrieg until the Wehrmacht blasted the Polish capital into rubble. This defiant broadcast was the final beau geste of a continent made mad by what Filipo Marinetti called “beautiful ideas that kill,” that Europe long nurtured on the intoxicating spectacle of banners and anthems, balconies and barricades. With Radio Warsaw‘s silence came world war, racial annihilation and, ultimately, a political hangover during which a sobered West swore off its passions in favor of a reasonable peace.
The late Phil Bosakowski’s absurdist one-act Chopin in Space, now running at the Sacred Fools Theater Company, is both an ambitious and ambiguous satire about the titular composer, about Poland and about the wiggly ways of realpolitik. In Bosakowski‘s skewed time-space continuum, Frederic Chopin must experience not only the failed Polish nationalism of his own lifetime but, after metamorphosing into Lech Walesa, of the future’s as well.
Poland, like Ireland and Israel, is a concept nation, a country whose people‘s epic suffering and sacrifice have earned them their own flag after centuries of foreign dominance and diaspora. (In Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the gag behind Pere Ubu‘s plot is that he is striving to become the king of a then-nonexistent country -- Poland.) With the help of messianic Catholicism and a little Slavic mysticism, Poland became, in its people’s own eyes, the “Christ of nations,” a noble martyr caught in a crossfire between the great powers. The very title of one of the country‘s patriotic hymns, “Poland Is Not Yet Lost,” echoes a national character that is paradoxically melancholy and optimistic.
The evening begins with Chopin (Jeff Goldman) explaining that the pop tune “Till the End of Time” is a plagiarism of his “Polonaise Militaire” -- the very music that was so quixotically broadcast against waves of Stukas in 1939. “Now, through the miracle of the recording industry,” he glibly confides in the tone of a TV pitchman, “this great tune and more are yours, available in this beautiful album at a popular price.”
This revelation, delivered as a tacky self-advertisement, hints at the cultural vulgarity that Bosakowski sees as defiling both the great art and ideas of the age of revolution. There are two women in the composer’s life: barefoot Marya (Majken Larsson), the idealized peasant woman who persuades Chopin to carry Poland with him by embedding its folk melodies into his oeuvre, and novelist George Sand (Carla Jo Bailey), his real-life lover and guide to cosmopolitan France.
Amid assorted details about Chopin‘s life and death from consumption in 1849, Bosakowski sprays the stage with comically surreal moments, such as when the pope (Stan Freitag) and Adolf Hitler (Paul Plunkett) butt into conversations, or when Chopin, Sand and the painter Eugene Delacroix (Tom Chalmers) try to order coffee at a Parisian cafe, only to have three waiters shot dead before them. Other scenes are interrupted by a passing tank (Chalmers) and an actor in a bear suit (Ariadne Shaffer); these rude reminders of Poland’s history of being invaded and of Russian hegemony, not only haunt Chopin and Marya, but stitch Space‘s 19th-century milieu to the modern era that follows.
In this latter section, Chopin finds himself pleading the case for Poland’s independence with FDR and Harry Truman (Freitag and Chalmers, respectively), characters who are actually Groucho and Chico Marx. Later still, Chopin (now transformed into Solidarity leader Walesa) appeals to Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Freitag and Bailey) for their support against Soviet intimidation.
Bosakowski flaunts some beautiful ideas that don‘t exactly kill, but certainly provoke. They are a little too coy, however, a little too artfully underdeveloped. The inescapable question about his play is, why Chopin? To what purpose does Bosakowski ridicule Poland’s great son? Why does he portray him as a bumbling clown who suffers reincarnation as Walesa? For that matter, what did Walesa do to merit similar treatment at Bosakowski‘s hands? (“Why not Chopin?” hardly satisfies our natural curiosity about the playwright’s intentions.) It‘s true that Chopin was a virulent anti-Semite, but that fact never intrudes among all the other biographical minutiae Space introduces. And it’s also no secret that Walesa has ended up shabbily, having received barely 1 percent of the vote in the last presidential election -- against a former communist -- and that, among other things, he has denounced his former allies as “eggheads and Jews.” But these things occurred long after Bosakowski‘s 1983 play was written and, even so, hardly diminish Walesa’s heroic role in Polish history.
The Sacred Fools Company is to be commended for putting its heart and muscle into this 75-minute work; there is never a doubt of director Michael Rainey‘s commitment to articulating Bosakowski’s themes and inspiring a sense of fun while doing so. Rainey has economically distilled Bosakowski‘s dislocated world onto a floor painted in the style of an antique world atlas; a gramophone, a musket, a French tricolor, some trunks and tall drapes are all he needs to project the playwright’s historical mayhem.