The Wooster Group’s newest production, A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique) was commissioned by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Tadeusz Kantor centennial as a tribute to the famous Polish director. The show is based on Kantor’s 1988 piece, I Shall Never Return and his 1942 adaptation of Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Return of Odysseus.
Although he began his career as a painter and worked as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, Tadeusz Kantor (1915-90) is currently considered one of the most important theatre artists of the twentieth century, and some argue, the most important Polish theatre director. His theories and aesthetics have influenced nearly all the major figures of the modern avant-garde, including Reza Abdoh, Robert Wilson, Frank Castorf, Krystian Lupa, Richard Foreman, Moisés Kaufman, the Quay Brothers, and many others. Kantor’s work with happenings, bio-objects, and theatrical space provided a blueprint for the development of postmodern avant-garde theatre and performance art.
Founded in 1955, throughout 35 years of experiments with actors, objects and space, Kantor’s Cricot 2 theatre would undergo a progressive transformation, from the Autonomous Theatre (1956) through the Informel Theatre (1961), the Zero Theatre (1963), the Happening Theatre (1967), and the Impossible Theatre (1971-72), to the final period of the Theatre of Death (1975-90). Each stage in the development of the Cricot 2 Theatre would be announced in a manifesto written by Kantor to crystallize his newly-evolved ideas. Tested and incorporated for a while, they would lead to new discoveries and to a new form of theatre.
While The Return of Odysseus is Kantor’s early pre-Cricot 2 work, I Shall Never Return belongs to the last, mature phase of his Theatre of Death (what many consider to be the quintessential Kantor). In many ways, I Shall Never Return is a collage of Kantor’s previous shows. Set in a bar with tables, the show alludes to many of Kantor’s regular characters: there is the Cleaning Woman (though as different persons, her character appears in almost all of his shows); there is the group of marching soldiers (who also appear in Wielopole, Wielopole, Let the Artists Die, and later, in Today Is My Birthday); there is Kantor’s own mannequin getting married (his double, which also appears in the brilliant Machine of Love and Death).
Kantor’s I Shall Never Return doesn’t have a dramatic script, but the structure of the show is somewhat comparable to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In I Shall Never Return, the actors rebel against their maestro by excavating for the public their deepest, most intimate fears to the public, as though to refute his theory that it is impossible to do so. We witness the psychological process of disintegration of the actor’s self and the actors’ revolt against it. The revolt also illustrates a conflict between the actors striving to preserve their own subjective existence and the author’s striving to convey his own subjective message. The actors arrive, quarrelsome and complaining, ‘looking for their author,’ without whom they can have no real existence even though they reject the forms of existence imposed on them … For the first time, the characters from Cricot 2 revolt against being directed into ‘one circus gesture’ and the unending conflict with the bio-objects they are assigned to. They no longer wish to be hired only to display the ‘dark side’ of recollections that is, in the end, impossible to resurrect.
A Pink Chair is divided into a prologue and four parts. In the Prologue, Zbigniew Bzymek, who plays the young Kantor, reads from one of Kantor’s manifestos. The voice, which comes from the speaker, is that of a young man, which is a bit jarring, considering that most of Kantor’s recordings we have are of his old self.
Part I: Sugar High is a conversation with Tadeusz Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska. The audience watches a TV screen showing a video of Kate Valk and Dorota Krakowska discussing doing a documentary/theatre piece honoring/adapting/replicating Kantor and his work. They question whether it is even possible. The conversation is set in our reality and it is rooted in Aristotelian dramaturgy: we are faced with a challenge (characters’ motivation), and the question (whether they will succeed in achieving their goal). The question posed in this first part is the same question that implicitly is also posed in Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, or Anne Bogart’s Bobrauschenbergamerica (and in some way, even in Gertrude Stein’s language portraits of Picasso and Matisse), that is, whether it is possible to create a ‘portrait’ of someone that is not a portrait, that is a work of theatre or/and language. In other words, what is the ‘essence’ of one’s personhood, particularly of one’s artistic personhood and whether this ‘essence’ can be transferred to a theatrical medium?
From there, the show slowly, slowly and sneakily, slowly, sneakily and brilliantly, transitions us into the postdramatic dramaturgy. In Part II: The Man in Place of Kantor, Dorota and Bzymek watch rehearsal footage of Kantor at work on I Shall Never Return. Like every rehearsal room, this one too is the liminal space between fiction and reality. In this part, we can clearly detect a tension between dramatic and postramatic theatre, fighting for dominance of the theatrical space and their own rightful place on stage. In Part III: A Miserable and Suspicious Inn, and in Part IV: Portrait of Dorota (“a testimony of things lost: a marriage ceremony, ending in a military parade”), we see a projection of a recording of I Shall Never Return (“the section where Kantor is confronted by his actors”), while the actors on stage replay the scenes with a varied degree of accuracy.
The scenes are illustrated by a number of songs, two of which deserve particular mention: the first is Lulajże Jezuniu, a Polish Catholic Christmas carol. Considered by many one of the most beautiful Polish Chrismas carol, it is structured as a lullaby sung by Mary to baby Jesus. The second musical piece is a Jewish prayer song, Ani Ma’amin (“I believe”), often recited at the end of morning prayers. The song closes the third part of the show, and by the time we get there, the entire spectacle has already transitioned to a postdramatic universe. The heart-wrenching melody inserts itself into this world of the play, reaching for the core of Kantor’s work.
Because at its very core, its very essence, Kantor’s work is by and about people traumatized: by the recent genocide that only a few of them survived, by the centuries of partitions, occupations and pogroms; and finally, by the current historical moment: years of Stalinist terror, and fear and loathing of the communist regime…. It is difficult, if not, in fact, impossible, to replicate that complexity of emotions without having lived the similar embodied experience. Yet, at the moment of Ani Ma’amin, the Wooster Group has accomplished what I always considered to be nearly impossible: to embody that deep wound, the generational trauma that permeates the spirit (in Polish, “duch”) of Kantor’s work (and, in some ways, the Polish “duch” as well). For a brief moment, I got a sense that the actors were channeling their own lived trauma: New York City reeling after 9/11… It’s been a long, long time since I was moved like this in a theatre.
The show would be perfect if it ended on that note.
Unfortunately, where the show does not succeed as well is in its last section Part V: The Return of Odysseus (an episode of the Odysseus story from I Shall Never Return). This section is staged as a kind of clown show, culminating in the rendition of Bound for the Promised Land (Protestant hymn). One of the reasons why this particular section does not succeed is that it seems somewhat misplaced in the structure of the show.
Staging of Wyspiański’s The Return of Odysseus was Kantor’s first truly avant-garde theatrical event; it was staged in 1942 during the German occupation of Poland, at the Cracow Underground Independent Theater. On the doors of the room where the play was being performed, Kantor placed the sign “You cannot enter the theater with impunity.” This statement, very real at the time since Germans persecuted anybody involved in any sort of cultural activity, would after the war become a metaphor for the emotional impact that Kantor’s plays had on his audience. In this simple production, Kantor made a first attempt at blurring the borders between fiction and reality, and hence at shaking the viewer’s sense of identity. Staging the play in a real house ruined by bombs allowed Kantor to relocate the audience from the fictional Ithaca it expected into the reality of the war they sought to escape.
The main actor played both Odysseus and himself, a man returning from the war, a fact of which the audience became aware only as the play progressed. Describing the opening scene in the partiture to the spectacle, Kantor wrote: “Wearing a muddy uniform and a helmet, Odysseus passes through the audience; very long triumphant sounds of a parade march are heard; Odysseus sits heavily on a gun-barrel, hunched over, forming a shapeless mass; it is unclear what he is…” After a while, the audience becomes disoriented, convinced that the actor is a mad soldier who has wandered onto the stage and who is disrupting the production. Finally, “an actor who plays the Shepherd begins talking to Odysseus [in order to move him off the stage]. Suddenly, the spectators notice Odysseus’ violent gesture and a club hitting Shepherd’s head…” The Shepherd falls down dead, and Odysseus begins his first line: “I am Odysseus, returning from Ithaca…”
Setting the play within the reality of the German occupation had nearly a terrorizing effect as the audience realized that the rugged soldier was an actual actor. As a real soldier, he was so much a part of the surrounding reality that his condition became a function of this reality, and hence, its familiarity made it invisible. It was at the moment when the reality was turning into fiction and vice versa, when his tragedy grew discernible. In his notebook from the production, Kantor wrote: ” Odysseus must return for real. It would be hypocritical to try to create the fake illusion of Ithaca.” Unfortunately, we have no recording of that production and the only documentation is Kantor’s notes and one black and white photo of the soldier/Odysseus.
In Kantor’s productions, the actors, like Odysseus, perpetually oscillate between fiction and reality; they are neither themselves nor the characters they play. Knowing no longer to which domain — fictional or real – the character belongs, the audience cannot dismiss it as it were if its fate was either completely fictional or completely real. The spectator can no longer remain a passive recipient of someone else’s pain; there is no catharsis here, no release.
The figure of Odysseus would return again and again in Kantor’s other works as a kind of symbol of the Artist Wanderer (and Jew Wanderer – an image deeply embedded in the Polish psyche since its own diaspora of the Romantic era.) In fact, Kantor would eventually assemble the entire collection of “Eternal Wanderers,” an array of figures carrying “parcels, bags, suitcases, rucksacks.” They symbolized European Jewry disposed of and shipped to concentration camps, carrying their most precious belongings with them…
Since the meaning of the figure of Odysseus in Kantor’s work is so multilayered, the clownish rendition of the scenes from Kantor’s work, in A Pink Chair, does not achieve the same intensity as the previous scenes and by the time we get to the final image, accompanied by Bound for the Promised Land, the scene feels somewhat deflated. Given the current refugee crisis, the potential for restaging of The Return of Odysseus as relevant to our present moment is endless, and the company seems to have missed this opportunity. If the scene were to be moved somewhere in the middle of the show, leaving Ani-Ma’amin for the ending, it would have made the production more internally coherent with the progression from dramatic to postdramatic theatrical universe longer and hence, even more surprising and delightful. Nonetheless, A Pink Chair is an accomplishment, and probably one of the best shows of this theatrical avant-garde season. And the answer is no, you can never return to your Ithaca…
This review was originally posted on TheTheatreTimes.com