BOTTOM LINE: An important look at censorship and the power of art to transcend from one of Poland’s leading alternative companies… but, there’s still something lost in translation.
I have a good friend whose mother was regrettably made the local Censor of the Arts during the communist domination of Mongolia. Luckily her mother had the good sense to take her children to see all the shows she was about to censor beforehand. Artists have always found themselves on the forefront of a constant battle between those who demand we ask the tough questions and those who would prefer we quietly accept our political fate. Like their Mongolian brothers to the east, Poland also had to deal with state mandated opposition to any voices of dissent during that “Communist mumbo jumbo” as the production The Files puts it in Theatre of the Eighth Day’s new addition to 59E59’s Made in Poland Festival.
One of Poland’s leading Avant Garde theatre companies, Theatre of the Eighth Day (founded in 1964), found themselves the unwitting subject of secret police monitoring during their student theatre days in the '60s and '70s. They were spied on and harassed, their homes were searched, and they were constantly monitored due to their oppositional stance to the current communist regime. Recently, the police files on their activist and anti-communist student theatre days have become public record and the company explores them in their current production, The Files; a documentary theatre piece that incorporates the dim-witted secret police communiqués, letters the company wrote at the time, video footage of their famous productions from the '70s that were under scrutiny by the authorities, and the re-enactment of old texts by their now 50 year old selves.
The video footage of Theatre of the Eight Day’s productions in the 70’s, “We have to Confine Ourselves to What has been Called Paradise on Earth…?!”, “A Sale for Everyone”, and “Oh, Have We Lived in Dignity”, are incredible to behold. The theatricality and the bravery of these young actors provide a ghostly snapshot of an era of paranoia and the power of art and artists to inspire, comfort and incite their audiences. The production’s most successful moments involve their archived video footage.
In fact, I would argue that the piece works better as a documentary film then in its current theatrical form. It’s a compelling story, one that should be told and must be told, but the pacing in its current form fell flat. Maybe something was lost in translation; the recounting of letters and texts spoken in English by Polish actors would naturally slow the pace down, although when one of the actors performs a section of text in Polish, it was completely riveting. There are moments of real theatricality, the opening sequence as the older actors enter the stage while we watch footage of their younger selves being introduced behind them to rousing applause or another comic and highly physical scene with actors spying and peeping into each other’s coat pockets.
And yet…most of the play seems to settle itself into a staged reading format, with actors seated on stools at music stands reading their own letters from the past and recounting the secret police investigations of their work. In these instances the play slows down to lecture pace and it seems the company relinquishes one of its greatest assets, the strong and compelling theatricality for which they are known. When I looked at the company publicity materials of their recent productions in Poland which are so visually arresting and inherently theatrical, I wished I could have seen those shows!
There is, however, something very moving about seeing a group of artists remain devoted to their art form and to each other for over 40 years, despite many of them having to leave Poland for a time. In the U.S. companies come and go so quickly and the arts are so rarely supported, especially within the alternative downtown scene, that theatre is often the stomping ground of the young. How incredible to see actors in their 50’s still making explosive avant-garde work. And to see these actors, Ewa Wojciak, Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, and Marcin Keszycki, relating to their younger on-screen selves added a fascinating component to this production. It’s an important lesson, especially for young artists, of the need to tell our stories despite horrific odds. I just don’t know, for this particular piece, if they found their right medium.
(The Files is presented by Theatre of the Eighth Day and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York as part of Made in Poland at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street. The show runs until November 9th, Tuesday through Friday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2:30 and 8:30pm, and Sunday at 7:30pm. For tickets call 212.279.4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com. For more info visit 59e59.org.)