Theater archives

The Avant-Garde Gets Polished


The plays of Stanislaw Witkiewicz provide a vertiginous time capsule of 20th-century European reality. Writing in Poland between the First and Second World Wars, Witkiewicz occupied a front-row seat to history, a position that enabled him to anticipate (and travesty) philosophical and aesthetic trends with uncanny prescience. Yet his fruitful proximity offered him no protection from the brutality of a civilization run amok. (Like Walter Benjamin, another human seismograph of cultural tremors, Witkiewicz killed himself fleeing the Nazis.) Known also as Witkacy (a shortened moniker he used to distinguish himself from his artist father), he came to theater via painting, and, as theorist and practitioner, was in endless pursuit of dreamlike abstraction onstage. His treatise “An Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form in the Theater” is a key document in the history of the avant-garde rebellion against psychological realism. A precursor to the Absurdists, Witkiewicz aspired to the same metaphysical freedom that Artaud was independently formulating in Paris and which perhaps achieved its fullest American expression in the surrealist collages of Richard Foreman.

Yet for all of Witkiewicz’s direct and indirect influence, his name still elicits cross-eyed stares even among those artists working within traditions partly indebted to his innovative precedent. Two rarely seen plays of his—The Mother at La MaMa and The Crazy Loco-motive at the Classical Theatre of Harlem—provide an opportunity for the current experimental generation to get better acquainted with their Polish forerunner. As irrational in their logic as they are lucid in their conviction, both works invite contemporary collaboration in materializing their ludicrously fluid theatricality. Not that the writing isn’t carefully composed; it’s just that it radiates an improvisatory energy that draws out the like-minded madness of anyone in its creative orbit.

This is where Brooke O’Harra, artistic director of the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, excels. Her video-inspired staging of The Mother conjures a theatrical universe where characters ripple like pools of water, metamorphosing into the peculiar ether of their freewheeling story. Dolls and puppets often serve as stand-ins for characters, and voice-overs occasionally intervene to add to the unstable flux of deformed figures and heady themes. The effect radically updates what Witkiewicz (in one of Daniel C. Gerould’s invaluable translations) calls “a whole whose meaning would be defined only by its purely scenic internal construction, and not by the demands of consistent psychology and action according to assumptions from real life.”

In an opening-scene parody of Ibsen, a mother (Tina Shepard) sits knitting in her parlor while complaining to her maid Dorothy (Barbara Lanciers) about her vampiric son Leon (Jim Fletcher), a good-for-nothing who lives at home while pondering his long-awaited philosophical masterpiece. Mother gripes about her lost potential as painter, musician, and writer of stories, yet also revels in her self-sacrifice—a conflicted dance that has her cruelly berating her grown boy one minute, jealously clinging to him the next.

The play, which coalesces around oedipal rage, existential mystery, and artistic struggle, leaps stylistically from Ibsen’s Ghosts to the expressionist torrent of late Strindberg. Cocaine binges, sexual orgies, and a dead corpse mysteriously returned to life, however, mark this as pure Witkiewicz. Nothing is made explicitly clear, except the questing consciousness prepared to spill even the most self-eviscerating of secrets. In O’Harra’s capable hands, the grotesquely resonant revelations breathe like three-dimensional neo-cubist paintings.

The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of The Crazy Locomotive, a play that erotically meditates on the aesthetics of crime in an age of mechanized humanity, suffered an opening-night accident that Witkiewicz would have no doubt understood as the inevitable symbolic outcome of his art. Half an hour into the 45-minute piece, the stage caught fire and the audience was forced to leave the smoke-filled auditorium slightly dazed and choking. Though the incident was easily contained, the confusion in the house—was this part of the script?—could have led to a much worse disaster than an unfinished performance.

Witkiewicz is not that much of a joker, however. And clearly, director Christopher McElroen has too much respect for the text to impose dangerous special effects. His overall approach, in fact, is one of hyperactive reverence—a style that works better in broad outline than in specific detail. As was the case with his recent revival of The Blacks, the storytelling sacrifices comprehensibility for exuberance. Consequently, the most vivid thing about the staging is Anne Lommel’s set, which divides the playing area into a raised platform representing the hellish sanctum of the steam engine and a separate sidecar holding the passengers. One can only hope that the ingenious layout survived the blaze unharmed.

Locomotive engineer Siegried (Alfred Preisser) and fireman Nicholas (Leopold Lowe), both in love with femme fatale Julia (Erica Ball), decide to suicidally accelerate the train to determine just who her surviving suitor will be. Of course, this being Witkiewicz, “the whole unsavory comedy of our existence” is also at stake. Though the cast’s overly manic handling makes things fuzzier than need be, the bumpy ride theatricalizes the subconscious journey that the playwright made his fiendishly uncompromising own.