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Polish Theater, Unmasked 

West Meets East, On Stage and Off

Wednesday, Jul 22 2009
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In the wee hours of Friday morning, June 26, at a bar in Wroclaw, Poland, Americans were talking — shouting, actually — over the din of the dance music blaring out from the back of the room. Many of the barflies were from Los Angeles, in town for an international theater festival (“The World as a Place of Truth”) honoring Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski on the 10th anniversary of his death. Not that Americans would normally flock to such a festival — more than a dozen representing just the L.A. theater community. They were actually invited by a program (the U.S. Artists Initiative) of a bicontinental nonprofit organization called Arden 2, headed by Joanna Klass, that was operating out of Orange County for many years and is currently housed within the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw. If you’re curious as to how Poland’s Song of the Goat and Theatre Zar got to UCLA Live over the past several years, you can thank Arden 2 and Joanna Klass. (Watch for Zar, returning to UCLA in the fall.)

It should be noted that the U.S. Artists Initiative invited people with a pre-disposition toward Polish sensibilities — that means heady, ensemble-created performance often developed over years, as well as dance theater and wild theatricality. So in one sense, these Americans were visiting Poland for endorsement of what they do in the U.S., against the grain of the prevailing commercial values of our culture, and of a dominant American theater that’s largely a product of those values. In panels and discussions, there was no shortage of respect expressed for our own actors, directors and playwrights, but there was an exasperation that such talent should be constricted by blocks of four-week rehearsals (always for economic reasons), followed by four-to-six week runs. This is the template in professional regional theaters across America, and in many of our own 99-seat venues. Making the nut and pleasing the crowds: These are the straitjackets that result in so many inane comedy-dramas, and in what critics like to call “delightfully silly” musicals.

What exists in Poland would seem to be the inverse of this essence, and it is embodied by Grotowski, who treated the theater as a research laboratory and physical stress test for actors. But when you stare into the heart of the opposite, what seems like the “other” consists of very similar shapes refracted through a looking glass.

click to enlarge FRANCESCO GALLI - Elektra in the Nuthouse: Yukiko Saito and other wards in Tadashi Suzuki's Elektra
  • Francesco Galli
  • Elektra in the Nuthouse: Yukiko Saito and other wards in Tadashi Suzuki's Elektra

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The Russian director, Anatoly Vassiliev (who spoke in Wroclaw), built an international reputation on this Grotowskian model. He was rewarded by Moscow’s mayor, who offered him a sparkling new, multimillion-dollar theater in the city center. When, after a period of several years, he failed to present a single performance, fuming government officials ejected him from the theater. But Vassiliev was clueless; it simply hadn’t occurred to him that he was expected to put on plays. He imagined he was installed in a kind of research institute.

And though Vassiliev’s approach may sound like an absurd anti-commercial extreme, think for a moment about the midsize Ricardo Montalban Theatre (formerly the James A. Doolittle Theatre) on Vine Street, sitting vacant for years. Commercial pressures can be as destructive to “product” as any Grotowskian philosophy that regards a production as a by-product. Vassiliev believed that he was conducting important work in his theater without productions, as did the directors of the new play labs that Michael Ritchie kicked out of Center Theatre Group when he first got there. And I’m sure that the producers and grant-writers over at the Montalban feel that their struggle, to find a viable marketing strategy to put on plays in their theater, is also important laboratory work. Sometimes, we find ourselves reflected in our opposite.

In that bar in Wroclaw, shortly after 1 a.m. on June 26, UCLA Live’s David Sefton announced news that had just come over his BlackBerry: Michael Jackson had just died in Los Angeles. The bar went quiet.

I thought again about Grotowski, and opposites. Michael Jackson was a performer infected by the need for attention through performance. Grotowski was a director who eloquently expressed his contempt for performance, and the vanities surrounding it.

“Production can be an excuse for one’s self,” Grotowski said. “I did something, therefore I was someone. Suppose you make a product, which becomes fashionable but reveals nothing. But it plays a long run, and others believe that you are productive. Consequently, so do you. But it is not true. People begin to expect you to make something again. You must make something that the journalists will like so that they will write about it. Then you must make something for them to write about. This is how people with reputations transform into clowns. This is the menacing meaning of the word production.”

At a festival panel, Valeria Vasilevski, an independent, New York–based artist who worked with Grotowski, described one laboratory in which the doors were locked and he refused to allow anybody to leave, to smoke, for a toilet break, to nurse a baby, or for any other reason until the rehearsal was over. On one occasion, the strain of the physical work caused one actress to break her arm. She was vomiting from the pain, Vasilevski said, but Grotowski refused to stop his rehearsal dedicated to transcending the limits of the human body. (Even the most die-hard Grotowski fans in the room were upset by this story.)

And so it goes: It was such physical and psychological sadism by his father that led Michael Jackson to test his limits with dance moves and vocal finesse that transformed him into a demigod on the stage, which was precisely Grotowski’s goal for his actors.

In a festival that included works by Peter Brook, Pina Bausch (who died as this festival was closing), Eugenio Barba, Richard Schechner, Theatr Zar and Song of the Goat, among others, the production that stood out most for me was Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki’s staging of Elektra. Using Kabuki percussion accompaniment (performed by Midori Takada with Sumo intensity), the play opened with a row of bare-chested men in shorts, black sneakers and an array of clown hats ranging from bowlers to fedoras. They all arrived in wheelchairs in formation, rolling across the stage, flinging legs in perfect synchronicity. As they tried and failed to wheel themselves through a wall, we heard grunts, like the sounds of some collective bowel movement. Some in the audience started giggling — this is Greek tragedy? More laughter erupted when the men’s chorus exited sounding like a choo-choo train, with one clown — having spiraled away from his comrades — chasing the team like a lost caboose.

That’s when Elektra (Yukiko Saito) arrived, brought in by a nurse. She glared forward in silence, solemn. It was clear now that we were in the nuthouse, and the primal, guttural sounds of the play recited in Japanese reached out to grab the audience by the throat, and wouldn’t let go.

It might seem that this is a long, long way from touring productions of Dirty Dancing at the Pantages, and Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Ahmanson. But is it really? Suzuki’s Elektra has been touring since 2001. Among the reasons that the stagecraft is so pristine is the time this company has been together. Suzuki has turned Greek tragedy into a touring musical.

Years ago, my Russian wife, trained as an actress at the Moscow Art Theatre, saw a touring production of Phantom of the Opera at the Ahmanson — one of the first American shows she’d seen.

“It was magnificent,” she exulted at a dinner party after the show. “Nobody can do musical theater like you Americans.”

We all thought she was out of her mind, but she was finding herself located in the opposite of everything she’d studied and grown up with.

Even if Suzuki insists, as he did during a lecture in Wroclaw, that he starts with the sanctity of the spoken word, his Elektra is commercial theater. And the Polish festival in which he appeared was a product of marketing expertise we could learn from. They even had Gen Y lining up outside to get in.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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