(A)pollonia: A Festival of Readings of New Polish Plays

by Robert Avila

in American Theatre magazine,Global Citizenship

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(Cast and director of Foreign Bodies.)

A slate of 9 compelling works reveals a nation at odds with its own history

On or about May 2009, Polish theatre changed.

That’s probably a little grand and a little too specific. But sometime in the early 21st century, something new definitely arrived on Polish stages. A little more than a decade after the fall of communism in 1989, Poland’s playwrights and theatremakers began excavating the past—in part because the opportunity was there in a way it simply hadn’t been before, and in part as an intuitive response to the particular burden of history on the (ever-shifting) present.

Such was the implication and import of a recent festival of readings of contemporary Polish drama—and the lively artistic and public exchanges they sparked—at New York Theatre Workshop (Nov. 21–25) in Downtown Manhattan.

And further: This change on Polish stages arguably bears scrutiny by audiences and readers far beyond Poland, including here in the United States. Hence the plays were deliberately put in the hands of prominent New York theatre artists—including companies like Witness Relocation, East River Commedia, the Assembly, the Foundry Theatre and NYTW.

Hence, too, a brand new pair of volumes of contemporary Polish texts for the theatre in highly playable English translation, which furnished most of the material for the readings: (A)pollonia: 21st Century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage, edited by Krystyna Duniec, Joanna Klass and Joanna Krakowska; and Loose Screws: And Other Polish Plays, edited by Dominika Laster.

Both volumes, published by Seagull Books (distributed by University of Chicago Press) and forthcoming in early 2014, appear as part of the In Performance series edited by Carol Martin, professor of drama at NYU. Joanna Klass, of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, spearheaded the translation project, which utilized an original and remarkably successful collaborative strategy combining expert translations with the insights and suggestions of practicing native-English-speaking playwrights. (The Mickiewicz Institute provided major support for the volumes as well as the festival. Plans are afoot to further introduce the volumes in similar festivals on the West Coast of the U.S. as well as in London.)

Of course, while Polish theatre has been celebrated worldwide for decades, that well-deserved reputation has correlated more with directors than playwrights—one thinks of Grotowski and Kantor (in a seminal earlier period); Lupa, Warlikowski or Jarzyna today. Nevertheless, the Polish stage has birthed its share of exceptional authors. And Polish playwriting is now in a peak period of productivity, judging by the readings and discussions underway last month.

Those intriguing readings and revealing discussions took place among audiences comprised of a visible, audible mix of Poles, local expats and other theatre professionals and enthusiasts. In addition to NYTW’s Linda Chapman and Jim Nicola, all four editors of the two anthologies were on hand for the festival. Also there—and haunting the informal post-show gatherings at neighboring Cucina Di Pesce restaurant—were a handful of the represented playwrights: Magda Fertacz, Piotr Gruszczynski (co-author of the compilation work (A)pollonia), Julia Holewinska, Dorota Maslowska, Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk and Wojtek Ziemilski.

A general issue arose early on in the opening night’s discussion (during which audience members were invited to ask questions of the editors, academics and playwrights assembled onstage). It was the issue of relevance. And, in fact, it was the first question raised.

“What is going to speak [in these plays] to an American audience?” wondered one man.

A succinct response came from Carol Martin, who chose to read a passage from the scholarly introduction to the (A)pollonia volume:

“The anthology’s subject matter is directly related to the historical and political shift in Polish theatre, which, at the beginning of the 21st century, began revisiting issues such as wartime trauma and postwar displacement, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, the fall of communism in 1989 and the subsequent political transformation, and attempting to take stock of past complexes.… Poland in all of its guises is treated here not as a fetish but as a fluctuating mix of identities, experiences and contexts. Alfred Jarry set Ubu Roi “in Poland—that is to say, nowhere.” We are telling stories that could take place in Poland—that is to say, everywhere.”

Director David Schweizer and playwright Julia Holewinska

(Director David Schweizer and playwright Julia Holewinska)

Friday, November 22

Members of Witness Relocation, under direction of Dan Safer, staged the first reading—Maslowska’s No Matter How Hard We Tried—across the street from NYTW at La Mama E.T.C. The play is a ferocious, word-drunk satire in an absurdist vein, in which three generations of women share one family dwelling, but little understanding, as each clings to her own generational life raft in a roiling sea of historical catastrophe, kneejerk nationalism, Catholic convention, neoliberal consumerism and narcissism, and brain-addling media saturation. While an audibly brilliant text, it also proved perhaps the most difficult of the series, the American actors never quite finding the right inflection for its vicious satire and dark laughter, which came in great streaks of farcical dialogue laden with the iconography of global late-capitalist culture.

More successful was the second reading, back at NYTW’s 4th Street Theatre, of Maslowska’s acclaimed debut effort, 2006’s A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians. It’s an equally scathing, hilarious and gently compassionate satire with a compelling premise: A Polish couple, veritable strangers on a drug-fueled bender, decides to impersonate a pair of Romanians (read: the all-purpose Other) as they hitchhike/highjack their way over the countryside. Directed by Paul Bargetto and featuring actors from his own production (co-produced by the Polish Cultural Institute) at Abrons Art Center in 2011, the reading featured outstanding performances by Troy Lavallee and Robin Singer in the title roles, as well as admirable work by the entire cast. It also came bracketed by original video footage made for the 2011 production. The video built on references to the male protagonist’s day job, playing the priest-star of a Catholic soap opera; and to a fantasy sequence that unfolds just prior to the play’s grim final image.

In the talkback, someone asked Bargetto about his approach to the text, and whether he deployed any strategies to transpose the play into a U.S. context.

“When I first read this play, I felt it was not so hard to take it into an American context,” Bargetto answered. “I noticed in its production history the play has been translated all over the place. So it seems there’s something in it that transcends the Polish reality.

“But there were some things, in terms of trying to crack it open, which were hard,” he admitted. “One was the Catholic soap opera, which is an interesting Polish phenomenon we don’t have in the United States. I didn’t play the whole thing, but we actually made an entire episode of Father Ted—partly as a way to explore it, but also to provide visual cues to the audience, just so they had that way in. But I think the play is about so many things that felt close to us: rebellion, self-loathing…. Making a show downtown with very small means, I think we always felt in some way very close to the play and its mood.”

Another audience member brought up the specificity of the Romanian “other,” wondering how it translated.

“It’s not just any otherness,” answered Bargetto, “it’s the otherness that’s dangerous. What’s clear from the play is that they’re the others who are poor. And poor is a kind of otherness that Americans have a hard time with always. I think that’s part of why it works.”

Playwright Dorota Maslowska and director Paul Bargetto

(Playwright Dorota Maslowska and director Paul Bargetto)

Saturday, November 23

The next day’s offerings included Magda Fertacz’s Trash Story, directed by Jess Chayes with members of the Assembly; and Julia Holewinska’s Foreign Bodies, directed by David Schweizer for New York Theatre Workshop.

Trash Story is a wrenching and beautifully written family drama confronting the notion of sacrifice in a meditation on nationalism, militarism, war trauma and endemic violence. It’s a play in which the ghosts of wars past and present (including in the person of a Polish Iraq War vet) haunt, quite literally, a single family home in a once-German town.

Foreign Bodies, based on real events, concerns a transgender woman named Ewa (formerly Adam) who finds herself isolated by her former colleagues in the Solidarity underground, as well as her family, in the wake of her sex change. While a deeply stirring drama, Foreign Bodies also exudes a defiant humor and resists any maudlin or sanctimonious tone. Moreover, through its transgender protagonist, it raises a stimulating set of issues around identity and community that feels utterly contemporary.

Foreign Bodies, beautifully acted by the two leads, provoked enthusiastic responses and questions from the audience in the talkback. A question about the translation highlighted the complex comedic repartee, delivered in doggerel rhyme, by the male and female choruses. Some of the wordplay here undoubtedly landed less successfully compared to the original Polish, admitted director Schweizer, but the evocative use of the chorus seemed to serve the subject matter well.

Playwright Holewinska, herself the child of two activists in the Polish underground of the 1980s, spoke of her intentions in creating the choruses: “My main objective was to show a certain community, and then later to break that up. And sometimes this is dark or depressing. Sometimes [the choruses] build the community. Sometimes they leave the hero/heroine alone, derided. It was also the case that in the 1980s people had a very strong sense of community, and after the change in 1989 that community was destroyed or dispersed.”

A man in the audience addressed the strong historical themes in both plays. “I’m curious,” he asked, “as to why these young playwrights choose to write about the past.”

“It’s my hope that these pieces are not only about the past,” answered Holewinska, speaking about both her own and her colleague Fertacz’s plays. “Living in Poland—living ‘nowhere,’ as Jarry said—we are always coming up against this history. We also both live in Warsaw, which is in a sense a large cemetery. And the history to this day divides our society. Besides that,” she quipped, “our football is very weak and our history is very strong, so we write about our history.”

“I don’t think it’s possible to talk about identity without talking about the past,” added Fertacz. (Both her remarks and Holewinska’s were translated by Dominika Laster.) “Our plays do treat the past, but it’s a different view, it’s our view,” she emphasized. “We write as people who were brought up in this trauma that surrounded us.”

“What’s happening also in the visual arts is that among this new generation there’s a demystification of history,” continued Holewinska. “It gives us a certain kind of freedom to tell the history in a different way. I wanted to [intervene in] the conventional discourse about history in our country. One aspect of it is that the Solidarity movement has been whitewashed, and the people who were involved become statuesque heroes. It wasn’t quite like this. There were people who drank vodka, had sex. Also, the official history is exclusively the history of men, and I wanted to give voice to the women, which they deserve, and to those who don’t fit into the official histories.”

Fertacz added: “I think our strength is that this [historical angle] is a very individual voice. And through the fact that it’s so personal it becomes, paradoxically, more universal.”

Festival talkback with Linda Chapman Wojtek Ziemilski Piotr Gruszczynski Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszcuk and Joanna Klass

(Festival talkback with Linda Chapman Wojtek Ziemilski Piotr Gruszczynski Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszcuk and Joanna Klass.)

Sunday, November 24

Sunday’s offerings began with stunning video and staged excerpts from (A)pollonia. Ironically, the piece that gives its name to the readings festival as well as to one of the two published volumes is the brainchild not of a playwright but of a widely acclaimed director: Krzysztof Warlikowsi.

Moreover, (A)pollonia is not an original drama, in the sense that the text is a medley of previously published sources (compiled by Warlikowski, Piotr Gruszczynski and Jacek Poniedzialek)—works by Aeschylus, Hans Christian Andersen, J.M. Coetzee, Andrzej Czajkowski, Euripides, Hanna Krall, Jonathan Littell, Marcin Swietlicki and Rabindranath Tagore.

But the four-and-a-half hour performance well earns its place in the collection by being a seminal event (the influential production opened the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw in May 2009), and by raising many if not most of the principal themes addressed through the other plays in the collections.

In director Tea Alagic’s canny interpretation, actor T. Ryder Smith, dressed in a shiny suit and tie, waits out the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” before launching with a sly intelligence into Agamemnon’s monologue from scene two of the play—a text that draws from Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, an historical fiction whose protagonist is a Nazi SS officer.

“The war is over!” he declares. “We’ve learned our lesson, it won’t happen again. But are you sure we’ve learned our lesson? Are you certain it won’t happen again? …If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person.…”

“This is the play Warlikowski wanted to make for the opening of Nowy Teatr, which was established in 2008,” explained Piotr Gruszczynski during opening night’s discussion. Gruszczynski also gave a sense of the evolution of the production.

“The idea was to invite spectators to this beautiful new venue that was a [car] garage built in the 1920s, almost a hundred years ago. Krzysztof had this idea that this garage was testimony to the history of Poland, the history of Warsaw. As you know, after the Second World War we had a Communist regime in Poland and couldn’t speak openly about what happened to Poland during the war. So the idea was to invite spectators to discuss our past. And one of the main topics for Warlikowski was the Jewish past of Poland.”

“We were searching for a long time for a title,” he explained. “One of the characters is Apolonia Machczynska, who was a Polish woman who was hiding Jewish people during the war. She was denounced and executed. So her name became inspiration for the title. We didn’t want to be so straight [about it], that’s why we put in brackets. This is the reason you can read ‘(A)pollonia’ like ‘anti-Poland.’ The whole idea was to discuss our Polish stereotypes, Polish attitudes. The construction is quite simple. We have three main characters; all of them are women. All of them are sacrificing life. The first heroine is Iphigenia, the second is Alcestis, and the third is Apolonia Machczynska. Two are fictional and one is real.”

Alagic also directed a reading of The Mayor (I), a 2009 play and the first play in a two-play series by Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk. Inspired, like Foreign Bodies, by a real character in Poland’s recent past (and new scholarship that in 2000 unearthed new evidence of Polish complicity with Nazi war crimes), it takes head on the still very sensitive issue of the role of ordinary Poles in the Holocaust, deploying a wildly imaginative story about the mayor of a mythical town who tries to get its citizens to reckon with their guilty wartime past.

The day concluded with Wojtek Ziemilski performing his own translation of his much-admired solo piece, a multimedia lecture entitled Small Narration. Essaying the tangled history of Poland in at once the most personal and clinical of terms, Small Narration explores Ziemilski’s relation to his grandfather, a famous artist and journalist exposed as a former informant for the communist secret police. Structuring the lecture-performance around excerpts from Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Small Narration limns the paradoxes and ambivalences in overarching national narratives with a philosophical detachment that belies the author-actor’s own roiling emotional impulses.

Playwrights Julia Holewinska and Magda Fertacz outside NYTW

(Playwrights Julia Holewinska and Magda Fertacz outside NYTW)

Monday, November 25

Members of the Foundry, directed by Niegel Smith, read the festival’s final offering, Diamonds Are Coal That Got Down to Business, by Pawel Demirski. The play is an intentionally crass, scatological, button-pushing meta-theatrical update of Uncle Vanya, in which the title character is an addled, outraged casualty of the neoliberal transformation of Polish society, forever misfiring his gun in a futile attempt to peg the elusive “man” who has brought such ruin down on him.

The brash satirical style brought to mind Dario Fo, even the socially pointed camp aesthetic of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, and inspired a reference in the talkback to Christopher Durang’s own recent subversion of the Chekhov text in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. In the absence of the playwright, Piotr Gruszczynski provided crucial context for the piece and Demirski’s highly political-satirical theatre company, which enjoys a loyal following in its home base of Walbrzych, an economically depressed post-industrial city in southwestern Poland.

With each set of readings and talkbacks the themes and tensions broached on the first night grew richer and more detailed. Indeed, by the end of the festival it was hardly necessary to justify anymore the relevance of these widely varied, often extremely funny and moving plays for American audiences. That many have already enjoyed productions in countries far beyond Poland and Europe seemed hardly surprising.

Robert Avila is a theatre critic and arts reporter based in San Francisco.