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In the Land Where Theater Is Hip 

Two Polish productions coming to UCLA

Wednesday, Oct 21 2009
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Wroclaw, Poland. — If you’re looking for an incubator of new forms as a measure of what really matters in the theater, Poland is where it’s at, and has been for some time. Even in the midst of an economic crisis, the midsize city of Wroclaw threw a great international theater festival this month (Dialog-Wroclaw, curated by Krystyna Meissner, of Theatre Wrolczesny). My theater tickets were stolen on the second day. They were next to my wallet and my camera, which were left untouched. The tickets were more valuable to the thieves. That should tell you all you need to know about this place.

It’s the second such festival in Wroclaw since June. (This summer, The World As a Place of Truth Festival, curated and administered by the Grotowski Institute, was yet another big party of great performances.) Once more, a slew of critics from Russia, Britain and the U.S. flew in to see the likes of Büchner’s Woyzeck (Handspring Puppet Company, Johannesburg, South Africa), literally animated by puppets and by director William Kentridge’s black-and-white film of backdrop settings, unfolding as childlike drawings as though from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Another comedy-about-the-end-of-the-world was also the grungiest Baal I’ve ever seen (RO Theater, Rotterdam) — in which Brecht’s titular poet was played by a sneering, androgynous woman (Fania Sorel) who depicted her character’s gender by drawing a phallus onto her jiggling stomach with an ink marker. I heard that in a postperformance discussion, the stunned Dutch troupe was ripped a new rectum by the hostile crowd. One reported response, “If I want to see garbage, I can look in my trash can,” seems to me a little over the top in terms of drama criticism — especially for a production that, with its Johnny Rotten aesthetic, was so well-acted and carefully designed. The Poles, like Angelenos in the film industry, are a slender people. I guess that flab shown so unapolagetically is not a sight they take sitting down. In a play about societal indoctrination, the Dutch may well have made their point.

click to enlarge KEN REYNOLDS - Poland’s Theatre ZAR rehearses “Gospels of Childhood” at St. Giles-in-the-Fields parish church in London.
  • Ken Reynolds
  • Poland’s Theatre ZAR rehearses “Gospels of Childhood” at St. Giles-in-the-Fields parish church in London.

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Looking for a Missing Employee was a theatrical assault on our ability to know anything, and on our nutty reliance on nuttier newspapers. Rabih Mroué, a slender standup comedian from Beirut, performed in quite good English a show about his fetishistic concern with missing people. His style was very easygoing, and there’s no way he was going to get all pious on us about this terrible issue. His approach was more like a cross between Franz Kafka and a Lebanese version of Jon Stewart.

He stood at a podium in the back of the theater, while we saw his televised face on a large screen — which is the smart theatrical conceit about how we receive information (and misinformation) through mass media. There were two smaller screens on either side of the main screen: One showed his fingers rifling through albums of newspaper clippings he had so fastidiously glued onto the album’s pages; the other showed hand-drawn diagrams following the plight of one man who disappeared from the Lebanese Ministry of Finance while walking home. Mroué tracks the newspaper accounts, article by article, and the facts start wobbling like drunks staggering out of a bar at 2 a.m. — despite the continual reference to “trusted sources.”

Least reliable of all is our narrator, who, in order to dramatize several days of no new articles, took a three-minute break during which we all listened to Chopin. Later, depicting with faux suspense a frenzy of misinformation, he apologized for losing his place, and for having accidentally glued one crucial article face-down into his album. We saw onscreen the distorted half-sentences on tattered strips of paper, indecipherable in dried glue — a metaphor for the state of newsprint if there ever was one.

Two comparatively dour Polish productions are coming to L.A. in November and December, respectively. From Warsaw, TR Warszawa is bringing director Grzegorz Jarzyna’s staging of Pasolini’s 1968 film, Teoremat. The stage adaptation (T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.) was performed here at the Wroclaw Opera House. It’s scheduled to make its U.S. premiere at the Ralph Freud Playhouse for two nights only, November 18 and 19, as part of UCLA Live’s International Theatre Festival. The other is Theatre ZAR’s Tryptich, slotted for December 1-3 at Royce Hall. Both productions reach back to the Gospels, as they try to comprehend who and what we’ve become, and both repudiate our commonly held understanding that the spoken word is the foundation of live theater.

Whereas ZAR’s theatrical language results in a kind of theatrical oratorio featuring ancient madrigals from Bulgaria, Georgia and other Central/Eastern European regions, T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. is a sequence of cinematic images (with terse dialogue interspersed) aimed at demonstrating how the pressures of our contemporary global economy on domestic relations have segregated us from faith, tradition and the capacity to love. It’s the story of a wealthy manufacturer whose family is destroyed by carnal attractions to an enigmatic visitor. The family members’ primal attraction to the stranger is compensation for the hollowness of their own existence. One of the evening’s biggest laughs came when a character asked the maid if she knew how to speak — the laughter triggered by the awareness that to that point, the production had been mostly a sequence of visual tableaux — stunning for both their composition and their economy of gesture —

accompanied by a score and sound effects.

On Sunday afternoon, upstairs in the brick-walled Grotowski Institute, Theatre ZAR’s project director Jaroslav Fret and his actor-singers offered a demonstration of the vocal techniques employed in Tryptich. Fret explained that the theater is seeking a form of storytelling based less on images and traditional language, and more on listening, on primal “vibrations” that come from this ancient music — rendered with gorgeous solemnity by an ensemble of 11. The open question about ZAR is whether their work, so clearly lifted from the tonalities of a church service, performed in churchlike confines and avoiding dramatic conflict with meticulous refinement, is actually theater or simply a church service.

If only UCLA Live had snagged The Roman Tragedies, a six-hour epic commingling Shakespeare’s Coreolanus, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, presented by Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep. That description might justifiably fill you with dread, but the event was an untethered delight. Set on a huge sound stage, it was performed like a telenovela in corporate-chic style, with multiple large-screen monitors broadcasting the live action, as well as snippets of news clips through the decades. Below the screens a ticker tape sometimes popped up with helpful news bites, such as “60 minutes until the death of Julius Casesar ... 180 minutes until the death of Cleopatra,” and these prophecies were as true to their predictions as a NASA launch.

Every 20 to 30 minutes, the beautifully performed action would cease and the audience was invited onstage to buy coffee, juice, beer and wine, and pastries, while the monitors dutifully broadcast a countdown to the start of the next scene. If you didn’t get back into the audience bleachers in time, no problem: There were couches onstage and backstage, where patrons sat with munchies, watching the action in front of them, in full view of the main audience, or watching it on one of the monitors backstage. Furthermore, if you were bored, tables with magazines and computers were set up on the side of the stage; you could read at any point during the action and check your e-mail.

This is how we receive our information: From literature and history to tweets, everything from the trivial to the epic is a kind of diversion, something we do while waiting for something else.

Theatrically and conceptually, it was a stroke of genius. Somebody must bring it here, just to show us what theater can be in the 21st century, and how it can so uniquely reflect our lives. If August: Osage County is what we now call great art, our theater is in retreat, seeking refuge in the shadows of Eugene O’Neill; European theater is going in exactly the opposite direction — into the blinding light of the future.

TR Warszawa’s T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.: November 18-19 at 8 p.m., UCLA’s Freud Playhouse

Theatre ZAR’s Triptych: December 1–3 at 8 p.m., UCLA’s Royce Hall

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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