When the Wooster Group co-founder/director Elizabeth LeCompte was first exposed to the work of legendary avant-garde Polish theater director Tadeusz Kantor, she was unmoved. “I thought, this has nothing to do with me,” she says. “The fact that it was this big male standing in the middle of the piece telling the actors what to do didn’t relate on any level.”
That was before the renowned theater company was commissioned by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland and the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at New York's Bard College to mark the centenary two years ago of Kantor’s birth. The resulting work, A PINK CHAIR (In Place of a Fake Antique) had its world premiere at Bard last summer and plays at REDCAT April 5-15.
“I really had to say, 'I don’t know if we’re the right people to do this,'” LeCompte confesses. “We didn’t know how to approach it. They wanted us to do it because they assumed our company was like his company in that we’re a full ensemble that works together, a lot of us, over many years. We all collaborated on the composing of pieces that had no traditional theater text.”
Using film of Kantor rehearsing his late masterpiece, I Shall Never Return, a mashup assembled at the end of his career that incorporates characters and props from earlier works as well as episodes and memories from his life, PINK CHAIR explores numerous unrelated topics.
“The thematics, of course, are how to translate one piece of art into another, or how to discover your roots in someone else’s work, how a company works with a director and material and what the relationships are between people who work so close together and have a history,” LeCompte explains. “There are five stories, and each one makes some kind of nugget of feeling and emotion around what we are talking about. It’s not really an intellectual idea, it’s really an emotional idea.”
The title comes from one of Kantor’s essays on theater, A Kitchen Chair in Place of a Fake Antique, but the Wooster Group substituted “pink” for “kitchen” to incorporate a beloved prop that has appeared in many of its productions over the past 20 years. As with Kantor’s company, Cricot 2, the new show employs costumes and props from past performances.
Coming of age during the Nazi occupation of Krakow, Kantor quickly became Poland’s master of experimental theater, staging in private homes adaptations of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus and Stanislaw Wyspianski’s The Return of Odysseus; in the latter, he cast a woman as Telemachus. With the founding of Cricot 2 in 1955, Kantor garnered global recognition for his adaptations of plays by absurdist artist/playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, including The Cuttlefish and The Water Hen, using mannequins in place of actors and incorporating “happenings,” a prominent movement in the 1960s predicated on spontaneity.
Unsure of how to approach her subject, LeCompte turned to Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, for a personal angle. Educated at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, Krakowska is employed by the Goethe-Institut but has secretly always dreamed of working in theater. “Being with the Wooster Group at rehearsals was an arrival at an intended destination,” she tells the Weekly via email. Decades ago she was invited to join Cricot 2; she demurred and wound up regretting it for the rest of her life. “I was afraid of being lesser. I knew I would be compared, always pointed to and laughed at, always the daughter that’s not as good as her father.”
Krakowska, LeCompte and the cast screened recordings of Kantor’s work and incorporated interviews with Krakowska into the text. “I think it riles theatrical authorities because we are coming at this man’s work through his daughter and she’s a woman, and that’s already something that isn’t accepted traditionally in Poland,” LeCompte says.
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It remains to be seen how the production will be received in Poland, where the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party, in addition to assuming control of the courts and media outlets, has jurisdiction over what can play at Krakow’s Stary Theatre. “The work of creators is seriously threatened. All but a few theaters in Warsaw have been destroyed,” Krakowska notes. “Until very recently we had festivals that showed work by visiting artists. But now, I’m unsure whether this will continue. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, some have emigrated and some work abroad. The problem is not just in the censoring of topics that do not need to be censored – the main problem is the systematic destruction of institutions, which is leaving valuable humans without work.”
No telling how Kantor, who died in 1990, might have responded to the current crackdown, but Krakowska is optimistic that her father’s theory linking misery to artistic impulse might leave him brimming with creative energy in the face of oppression.
After her parents divorced when she was still a child, Krakowska was estranged from her father, but she reconciled with him in adulthood. “Fascinating, human, charismatic, being around him I always felt the existence of eternity,” she reminisces. “I had the feeling that the intellect, creativity and art of the individual were absolute.”
A PINK CHAIR (In Place of a Fake Antique) runs April 5-15 at REDCAT, 631 W. Second St, downtown: Tue.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun, 3 p.m.