The writing of Witold Gombrowicz, like the work of many of the best Eastern European authors, is too little known in the States. Polish artists in particular have received short shrift—recall the head-scratching when the brilliant poet Wislawa Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature a few years ago. In fact, it seems to take a Nobel just to get their books into print here. But thanks in large part to the critical intervention of Jan Kott, Gombrowicz hasn’t been completely ignored; though rarely produced in English anymore, his plays The Marriage, Operetta, and Ivona, Princess of Burgundia have revealed themselves to be sensitive aesthetic instruments of the shock and clumsy horror of the previous century. They’re also unbeatable sources of absurdist adrenaline.
Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz’s first novel—written in 1937, though banned for years by succeeding totalitarian regimes—has often been compared to Sartre’s La Nausée for its prescient philosophical spirit. Teatr Provisorium, an alternative theater company born during the Polish student theater movement in the ’70s, took the first crack at adapting this satiric story of a 30-year-old man reduced to a quivering state of adolescent jelly by a dictatorial teacher. Three decades later, their newest version, a coproduction with Lublin’s Kompania “Teatr” that had a brief stop last week at Raw Space, provides a dizzying theatrical enactment of the novel. For those unfamiliar with its source, the production may be hard to get a handle on, but like the vertiginous offerings of Richard Foreman or the Wooster Group, all you really need to do is strap yourself down and enjoy the ride.
Staged in a boxed set lit by an ominous spotlight, the action begins with a man sitting alone on a bench in a suit, picking first discreetly, then indiscreetly at various body parts. He is then joined by another wearing a uniform jacket, whose desire to be left alone is met with slapstick horseplay. After a third uniformed man arrives and is roughed up a little, a classroom is formed, and out comes the enraged professor ready to indoctrinate with his crusty conjugations and unbending literary interpretations.
The four actors are adept physical comedians, though “comedians” seems hardly the right word for men with such haunted, ashen looks. Before, during, and after their lessons, the “students” mug, bang heads, slap each other around, fart (a lot), drool, even rub their asses on each other’s faces. In Gombrowicz’s world, ideals are countered with lusting flesh, and freedom is a tormenting fiction whether at school or in the country, where one of the young men falls violently in love with an uneducated stable boy. More than a dramatization of the novel, the gross-out style of the piece is a manifestation of the author’s signature vow, recorded in his 1933 short-story collection, Memoirs of Immaturity: “Wherever I see some mystique, be it virtue or family, faith or fatherland, there I must commit some indecent act.” Not a bad policy given that the words were written six years before Hitler’s invasion.
Anton Chekhov in a porn house? One could imagine perhaps mad Strindberg or even the reportedly lusty Norwegian Ibsen, but the good doctor from Moscow? The very idea is a sacrilege to his saintly, pince-nez image. Yet, as the current Chekhov Vaudeville Festival at Show World reveals, the sleazebag setting isn’t as incongruous as it may sound.
Chekhov considered himself first and foremost a comic writer, a point he tried (unsuccessfully) to hammer home to his more somber-minded director Stanislavsky. Though his reputation as a playwright rests on his four late masterpieces (typically drained in production of all their mirth), he began his theatrical career writing farcical sketches. Yes, the man could even do shtick, but his early specialty was in portraits of deeply conflicted neurotic types. Nothing excessively human was foreign to him, least of all the libidinous, peep-show forces wreaking havoc on our better judgment and taste.
Leave it to Nada’s fiendishly resourceful artistic director Aaron Beall to curate a program of this so-called minor work in a striptease lounge, now a legit venue. Indeed, more than half the fun of the event is the setting, which conjures, with its black and red decor, the notion of a Russian Las Vegas.
The menu includes a full list of Chekhovian hors d’oeuvres, most of which are served up in bills of two or three, making it possible to see, for example, The Bear with On the Harmfulness of Tobacco or The Proposal with The Tragedian in Spite of Himself. Sure, the work is more frolicsome than well acted (the best part of Beall’s staging of The Bear is the hilariously melodramatic, slo-mo entrance of the young widow), but at least the actors don’t make the usual mistake of overplaying the pathos.
“I am describing life, ordinary life, and not blank despondency,” Chekhov insisted, unhappy with how he was always made out to seem like “a crybaby or a bore.” Though the uneven quality of the performances may have elicited a few moments of awkward throat clearing, the idea of headlining at Show World would no doubt have tickled his generous Slavic soul.