This week, New York audiences can explore two major camps of post-1960s Polish theater. BAM will present Krum, a production from young director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who’s partly influenced by the visual, ethereal Tadeusz Kantor and the spiritual, sculptural Krystian Lupa. Meanwhile, at La MaMa, the venerable Gardzienice company embodies the opposite tradition: earthy and ethnographic. Based in a rural village in eastern Poland, Gardzienice researches disappearing Eastern European folk music and dance rituals, weaving them together with ancient Greek forms. The ensemble won wide recognition in the 1970s and ’80s for extending Jerzy Grotowski’s physical and mystical experiments.
To me, Gardzienice is a living fossil. Their presentations record nearly extinct folk traditions, but it’s hard to see more than the relic. This 40-minute “theatre essay” version of Euripides’Iphegenia in Aulis will not convert nonbelievers. The ensemble gives a scattered 40-minute account of Agamemnon’s wartime child sacrifice, chanting in Polish, ancient Greek, and English (sometimes simultaneously). With no translation except for an occasional line, it’s a baffling encounter yielding few theatrical satisfactions for American audiences.
The young chorus members demonstrate few signs of the physical rigor for which Gardzienice became legend. Senior performers, in the roles of the Old Man and Klytamnestra, display tautness and focus, but the folk festivities look cartoonish. The most compelling music comes in Iphegenia’s death song and the women’s lamentation afterward—both fleeting moments lost in dowdy pageantry. Perhaps this remains interesting to anthropologists or folklore scholars, but it comes across as an exhausted aesthetic for the stage, not a channeling of ancient forces. I’m drawn to the other Poles.