The First Floor Theatre
January 2 - 18, 2004
Thursday - Sunday at 8:00pm
and 2:30pm

NY Times Critic's Notebook

playwright: Slawomir Mrozek
director: Paul Bargetto
set design: Youngju Baik
costumes: Oana Botez-Ban
Dramaturg: Amiel Melnick
featuring: Troy Lavallee, Cornel Gabara, Paul Todaro and Nora Laudani

presented in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute

La MaMa presents STRIPTEASE & OUT AT SEA two one-act plays written by Polish absurdist master Slawomir Mrozek directed by Paul Bargetto. The program is presented in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute. Like most contemporary works by Eastern-European playwrights--including Vaclav Havel and Polish Tadeusz Rosewicz--both plays are politically charged and likely to be seen in a new light by American audiences in the present age of terrorism and the Patriot Act.

In "Striptease," two men - an intellectual and an activist - find themselves imprisoned in a room by unknown forces. The intellectual believes that his free will is best preserved by inaction; the activist is prepared to protest, no matter the cost, just to assert his will. When they are eventually forced to strip, they elaborately rationalize their submission. In "Out at Sea," three men starving on a life raft employ a hilariously logical application of democratic and other bureaucratic procedures to determine which of them is to become dinner for the other two. One is thin, one is medium, and one is fat. Guess which one has to volunteer! Both plays lead hilariously but with inexorable logic to extremely bleak endings.

Translators are Lola Gruenthal for "Striptease" and Amiel Melnick and Asha Oniszczuk for "Out At Sea."

Slavomir Mrozek began his career as a popular cartoonist, journalist, and satirical short-story writer. After three years as a theater critic, Mrozek wrote his first play ,"The Police," in 1958. This absurdist political cabaret, imagining the consequences for the police of a total eradication of crime and political dissidence, burst through the constraints of socialist realism. No doubt that Mrozek took advantage of the few years of relatively open society Poland enjoyed under Gomulka's presidency. According to Professor Halina Stephan, Mrozek's status, during these years, was that of a "subversive satirist enjoying the generous support of the socialist cultural establishment." But around 1963, widespread censorship and oppression returned, leading Mrozek to turn a trip to Italy with his wife in a thirty year flight from the compromises of what he called an "intellectual and moral demoralization.

"Tango," the first play following Mrozek's exile, is certainly his most famous and influential work. First performed in 1965, it consists of an analysis of totalitarian mechanisms and targets with uncanny irony the foibles of both the East and the West. Mozrek's plays gradually explored less "Poland-rooted" topics. His 1980's texts such as "The Ambassador" and "The Portrait" are real laboratory experiments on characters, concentrating on their psychology in order to figure out global historical and political mechanisms. His later works include "Love In Crimea, "The Beautiful Sight," and "The Reverends".

When the Warsaw Pact crushed Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring in 1968, Mozrek published a letter denouncing Poland's participation in it, and applied for political asylum in France after refusing an official "recall" to his country--where his plays were banned until 1973. Mrozek lived in France for many years, and then moved to Mexico. He returned to settle in Cracow in 1996, where he has taken up satirical cartoons, newspaper columns and short stories.

Director Paul Bargetto recently graduated from Columbia University's MFA program in directing. He is currently the Artistic Director of East River Commedia, an international theater company based in New York City Recent credits include Shakspeare's "A Midsummer Nights Dream," Strindberg's "Dream Play" and Euipedes' "Hecuba." Before graduate school he worked extensively in the Downtown Off-Off Broadway scene at such venues as Collective Unconscious, HERE, House of candles and WAX, among others. Last year he was a semi-finalist in the Ring Award Opera directing and design competition in Graz, Austria.


by Margo Jefferson
Januray 13, 2004

It's good to step outside the security of our homeland culture. Nothing can be taken for granted. History changes, but so does the meaning of words. Depending on the situation, words like freedom and tyranny and faith have different applications and consequences. When does faith constrict freedom? When does freedom become a cover-up for tyranny? Most important, who has the power to define these words?

This month audiences at the LaMama Experimental Theater Club in the East Village can enter the corrupt czarist world of 19th-century Russia and the rapacious Communist one of 20th-century Poland. "The Brothers Karamazov: Part II," the Eleventh Hour Theater's adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel, is playing in the huge Annex theater, while two one-act plays, "Striptease" and "Out at Sea" by the Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek, are tucked into the intimate first-floor theater next door. All three works run through Sunday.

So many 19th-century novels were published in serial form that they often work best as serialized television dramas. This "Karamazov" began as a six-part stage serial with six directors, but it ended up as a two-part project split into two four-hour evenings, both adapted and directed by Alexander Harrington.

Part 1 played at the Culture Project last February. If you missed or have forgotten much of it, do not fear. Part 2 begins with a fine, fast summary. The actors move swiftly onto the stage, striking the poses that best capture their characters. Then, alternating between narrative and dialogue, they fill us in and whet our appetite for what's to come.

It's story theater: we watch the page take on stage life. Here is Fyodor Karamazov, a greedy landowner turned moneylender; here is his eldest son, Dmitri, the lustful hot-tempered ex-army officer who quarrels bitterly and constantly with his father over money and the love of Grushenka, a beautiful, shrewdly wanton Polish woman. Shortly after the play begins, Dmitri will be accused of killing his father. He will be defended by his half-brothers: Ivan, the freethinking cynic who declared that "when god does not exist, everything is permitted" and debates the devil at night in his room at night; and kind, pure-hearted Alyosha, a novice in a monastery. And don't forget Pavel Smerdyakov, Fydor's illegitimate son, reduced to being his devious, house servant.

So many high emotions and vehement declarations. "We are all cruel. We are all monsters. We all make children suffer." "I'm so ashamed — I'm ashamed of my whole life." "I am a servant, sir. If my betters see fit to make a fool of me, I must endure." So many minor but unforgettable figures, too: a mad peasant woman snatching toys from her dying son; a rich widow who knows just how to torment men who try to borrow money.

In a just theater world, audiences would be able to see this production — which is resourcefully staged and intelligently dramatized — over two nights. (Or, combined with Part 1, over four). As is, despite a sampling of Russian food during both intermissions, audience energy ran down. There was so much to take in.

And what about all those long demanding speeches, demanding for the actors as well as for the audience? In a reasonable world this hard-working company would have more rehearsal time, too. When you're reading a book you can say: "I'm putting this down now. I need to be fresh for what comes next." Theater doesn't have that luxury. Maybe companies should consider joint productions and ticket arrangements that would let people see a play like "Karamazov" over two or more nights.

I'm not faulting LaMama, which stages more eclectic and innovative work than most theaters dream of. I'm asking theater companies that want to do this kind of work to think practically about what will increase the size and enthusiasm of their audiences.

I'd like to see more evenings of one-act plays, whether by a single writer or by several. It's a terrific form and a demanding one. Like a short story, it leaves one satisfied but eager for more. (Hence more likely to come back to the theater.)

Slawomir Mrozek wrote short stories before he wrote plays, and these one-acts are parables about the civilization of totalitarianism. I say "civilization" because totalitarian governments want people to believe that resistance of any kind is barbarism. To be civilized is to be on the side of power; the ruthless arrogance of the aristocrat easily becomes that of the apparatchik.

In "Out at Sea" three starving men stuck on a raft agree that one must be eaten to save the other two. They all wear impeccable dress suits, so it is only right that they proceed in elaborately formal ways. Each man's language reflects his physical state and degree of power. The Fat Castaway (Paul Todaro) is a blunt manipulator. The Medium Castaway (Cornel Gabara) is more tactful but eager to be on the right side. The Thin Castaway (Troy Lavallee) is anxious and placating. The Medium and Thin men both want "something to eat," but it is their overbearing companion who notes, "We must not eat something but someone."

Should they draw lots? No, free elections are better: they will campaign then vote. What follows is ruthless electioneering. But what happens internally is worse. Fraud and bullying go only so far; the real trick is to persuade someone that being a sacrifice is his choice.

Mr. Mrozek was a cartoonist for years, and one sees that here. It isn't just the look of each man, it's how each moves: the slightly exaggerated gestures that give his character away. Their talk could be coming from big balloons filled with the hot air of self-serving desperation.

"Out at Sea " is ghoulish and high spirited. "Striptease" is more obviously grim. Here two men with briefcases, (Mr. I and Mr. II), find themselves in what is clearly a prison of some kind. They spend a lot of time and euphemistic talk trying to describe — or avoid describing — what brought them there and whether they are forbidden to leave. Of course they fight, each accusing the other of making things worse with the unseen authorities. Shouldn't they try to leave? says the more aggressive Mr. II (Mr. Gabara). No, answers Mr. I (Mr. Lavallee), that's an external choice. He is concerned with his internal, his personal freedom, Once again the cartoonist in Mr. Mrozek joins the playwright. The authoritarian power is represented by a huge white hand that moves slowly out of the wings and silently demands obeisance.

Here, too, the actors have physical traits — stances and gestures — that matter as much as their words. Paul Bargetto directs with a keen sense of this visual truth; the truth of cartoons on the page, and of commedia on the stage. The actors respond, and Young-ju Baik's spare, bold set supplies the right background.

A friend who accompanied me wondered if American audiences might find Mr. Mrozek's style difficult to grasp. Every culture needs to think about language and power. These plays have a lot to teach us.

2004 page