Polish theater has always been shaped by the kind of volatility that might be expected from a country poised on the fault lines of European culture, religion, politics and history. For the generation that lived through the cataclysms of two world wars and under the long shadow of the Cold War, those upheavals produced a thrillingly radical and rigorous flowering of stage work that continues to influence and define the avant-garde both here and abroad.
So Echo Theater Company’s U.S. premiere of The Suitcase, playwright Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk's name’s darkly surreal 2009 meditation on Polish anti-Semitism and the country’s inculpatory role in the Holocaust, comes with high expectations.
With Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Holocaust-themed Our Class, which received a ravishing production by Son of Semele Ensemble three years ago, The Suitcase is part of a broader effort by a new generation of Polish theatermakers to confront an uncomfortable part of the country’s national memory, which was mostly suppressed during the communist period. But where Our Class limited itself to an artful if ultimately journalistic excavation of wartime crimes and their aftermath, The Suitcase is a surprisingly irreverent yet ultimately respectful treatment. This play brackets its somber history with a disarming kind of whimsically skeptical satire of both middlebrow Polish culture and the Holocaust tourism that forms the seed of its story.
Jeff Alan-Lee is the evening’s emcee-like Narrator, who quickly sets the tongue-in-cheek tone of the evening by humming the melody from the Claude Lelouch’s 1966 French film kitsch A Man and a Woman, he says, “to lend the scene a French air, to give it allure.” He is joined by Jackleen (Claire Kaplan) as the pair launch into a music hall–style duet on the phenomenon of Holocaust memorials — and Paris’ Mémorial de la Shoah in particular — during which they humorously “unpack” the signifiers and ideologies of museums that can’t literally house the thing for which they are dedicated.
The pair then introduces Franswa Jackoh (Vincent Castellanos), the play’s protagonist and a naturalized Frenchman haunted by the mystery of Leo Pantofelnik (Eric Keitel), the Polish biological father he never knew. Franswa’s visit to the Paris museum and his chance encounter with an exhibit of suitcases belonging to the victims of the Auschwitz death camp ultimately allows him to recover that lost identity — and answer the question that the play characterizes as Franswa’s prayer to connect him to “the pipe that pumps the wellspring of our national culture.”
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Clocking in at just under an hour, the play is long on thoughtful ideas about Polish national identity and its ownership of the past, but, under Sam Hunter’s minimalist direction, lands perilously short of delivering the kind of substantial evening that might feel up to The Suitcase’s weighty subject. Part of that deficit is a product of the play’s purposefully provocative levity, which has cast members continually breaking into song or delivering monologues like stand-up routines (one character is an answering machine). But despite the efforts of a uniformly fine ensemble (which includes Alexandra Freeman and Sigute Miller), there is a nagging sense that the performers’ naturalistic delivery seals off crucial subtext.
The enduring legacy of Polish postwar directors like Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor is a mise en scène expressly designed to counter a mainstream that too often regards theater as TV by other means. This production departs from that ethos and paradoxically loses sight of its horror by enacting it in a manner that’s a little too overly familiar for discomfort.
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through Aug. 18. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.