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.
Yet, even in the best of circumstances, a piece like Chopin in Space is a risky proposition, and Rainey‘s unseasoned and underrehearsed cast make this staging far from ideal. Although it’s good to see a young ensemble tackle such a sprawling historical circus, some of the roles, especially that of Chopin, would have benefited from being cast for older actors. A line like Marya‘s “There is much sadness in Poland” requires a depth of understanding to prevent it from sounding tinny or pompous, and Rainey has not been able to instill this in his cast.
There may be a self-deluding belief afoot here that absurdist works somehow lend protective covering to inexperienced actors and awkward gestures, but just the opposite is true: If anything, nonlinear theater requires rigorous discipline, or the result just jiggles like Jell-O in an earthquake. In other words, the absurd should not be mistaken for the senseless. One has to look no further than the Open Fist production of Boris Vian’s nihilistic farce The Knacker‘s ABC to find an example of a well-oiled company making this “Anarchist Vaudeville,” set during World War II, accessible to a modern audience accustomed to Aristotelian arcs and identifiable heroes and villains. The Open Fist ensemble members are roughly in the same 20-something range as Sacred Fools, but seem years ahead in their self-confidence.
Even The Knacker’s ABC, however, with its anarcho-pacifist ridicule of both Nazis and Allies, is mildly discomfiting; in a way, Bosakowski‘s exhumation and seeming desecration of the composer’s reputation confuse us even more. Frederic Chopin was a man of his times; his stirring Piano Concerto No. 1, written in Paris as Czar Nicholas I was crushing Chopin‘s Poland, was a veritable soundtrack for the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Today, as citizens of a global consumers’ republic, we are safely protected from the banners and anthems, balconies and barricades of Chopin‘s Europe. Yet, while we may enjoy the luxuries of shopping and ridicule, we occasionally get the vague feeling that something is missing in our culture — a defiant broadcast, perhaps, or even a melancholy optimism.