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
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
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.
FREEDOM TWISTED BY CORRUPT REGIMES
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
"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