Towards the end of Festen—TR Warszawa’s elegant, bleak stage adaptation of the 1998 Thomas Vinterberg film—the character charged with keeping events running smoothly decides to throw in the towel. “Being master of ceremonies on a night like this is quite challenging,” he declares.
It might be the understatement of the year. Festen (directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna and adapted for the stage by Mogens Rukov and Vinterberg himself) follows the evening-long implosion of an extended Danish family, gathered to celebrate their paterfamilias’s 60th birthday. This fete isn’t festive for long, though: Shortly after the salmon soup is served, the birthday boy’s eldest son rises to toast his dad—then matter-of-factly announces that his father habitually molested his younger self and his twin sister (who recently killed herself, and whose memory torments the troubled clan). Don’t worry, this shouldn’t spoil too much: the revelation is only the first of many such toasts, ranging from the uncomfortable to the truly horrific, that punctuate the soiree. We start to dread the clink of cutlery on glassware as the evening wears on.
But Festen is much more than an exercise in precisely performed, gracefully staged schadenfreude; it’s a kind of scale model for the way societies’ self-deceptions eventually cause them to self-destruct. An African boyfriend receives a vile display of long-ingrained racism; the matriarch’s blindness to her husband’s brutalities suggests other kinds of willful ignorance (the Nazi echoes seem particularly strong here).
In Vinterberg’s original film—the first to follow the 1995 Dogma manifesto’s minimalist strictures—the viewer feels like a voyeur, peeking down stairways or around corners. On stage, though, Jarzyna’s family clatters around a cavernous banquet hall, turning us into reluctant guests at a very public disaster. It’s not just family trauma at stake, but a crumbling corrupt dynasty (think of a twisted King Lear, if the father was a monster and all three children savaged him from the first). With this spare staging, Jarzyna creates some haunting images. The backlit figure of a waitress behind shower curtains suddenly appears to different siblings, looking through different doorways, as an image of their dead sister, who died in the tub.
Festen will be the final international production to play St. Ann’s current location, before it moves a few blocks away to 29 Jay Street. If it’s not exactly a cheerful goodbye party, it certainly reminds us of one of the things St. Ann’s does best: bring New York audiences virtuosic European performances, and give them enough space to let beautiful disasters unfurl and do their worst.