The Art of Assimilation
Sejny Chronicles and Kicked Out of Death by Père Another
A varied pair of April productions, each enmeshed in multicultural realities, serve to monitor the current frontiers of New York City’s theater scene, and suggest enticing work to come. Sejny Chronicles at La Mama and Kicked Out of Death at the Chocolate Factory—very different creatures—pointed up the relevance of “local” work on the collective conscious. (Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, revived last month at BAM, is another example, in which apartheid in South Africa mirrors racism in the U.S.) Sejny, the centerpiece of a cultural festival by the Borderlanders Foundation from the northeastern Polish town of Sejny (pronounced as if the final letter of “sane” were accented), took on the immediacy and fragility of oral history—a crucial topic in a part of the world that’s suffered invasions and counter-invasions for generations. And Kicked Out, by the duo Père Another, runs through May 3, melding arcane and gnomic utterances (think Georges Bataille, and the verse of Edmond Jabès) with Marxian physical comedy, and that of the Three Stooges.
Sejny opens in darkness, and in Polish. A tall youth (Michal Pawlowski) bearing a lamp intones “The lamplighter is coming to turn off the lights” while circling a broad tabletop holding baked clay models of Sejny’s buildings. He snuffs out candles in the sandy streets, accompanied by a boy (Piotr Schroeder) whose head only reaches the lamplighter’s chest, but whose voice is rich and resonant—an indication, perhaps, of how the production’s childlike methods thrum with mature themes of cultural unity devastated by intolerance and displacement. The beguiling cast, comprised of fourteen kids from Sejny and nearby towns, wore stylized nightclothes; they’d lay ears to the toy-town roofs, then lift a building and give voice to that house’s occupants. The Sejny cathedral got trooped around the table as beggar antics were mimicked (“Salvation for a penny!”; “It’s the end, the end is near!”) Songs rang out in Hasidic, Hebrew, Yiddish, Lithuanian, and Roma (gypsy). A Jewish infant, safe from the Nazis with one town family, is then recovered by its parents, the Dantes, only to go to a neighboring town that would be razed.
Although didactic earnestness did thicken on occasion, more often the cast was too captivating—as with Aleksandra Tomal’s recounting of Rachela’s tale—for this reviewer to pay mind to the English supertitles. After an hour, Sejny wraps with the lamplighter’s call, enfolding itself in the air of human mystery that spurs such overnight excursions as Dylan Thomas’s radio play, Under Milk Wood. Seamless ensemble effect is by no means a Polish invention though a stroke of good fortune had film director Wojceich Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript screening at BAM through part of April, an inimitable mid-1960s historical romp that brims with the guiles of an astonishing cast. Sejny’s more direct lineage is the Gardzienice Theater, who brought their organic power to La Mama in October 2007 with Iphigenia at Aulis, a hurtling forty-five minute tour de force.
The director of Borderlanders Foundation, Krzyzstow Czyzewski, was a founder of Gardzienice in the late 1970s. When the Iron Curtain dropped in 1989, Czyzewski (“chi-ZHEF-skee”) elected to work towards civil society by creating Borderlanders, and the foundation has traveled to conflict-ridden regions including Macedonia, Georgia, Armenia and Indonesia. After one La Mama show, as the audience mingled with the performers, handling the set model and tiny books etched with individual chronicles, Czyzewski and Sejny director Bozena Szroeder talked with the Rail. Szroeder described how stories collected by young performers from the town’s older population speak to other stories. “It’s like stepping into the river, then feeling that the river’s going on—that there’s no way to escape it,” she said. “When we went into this river, we had to understand that you should listen more, that people would have more and more stories. Usually old people—especially in Communist times—just went nameless and passed away without leaving a trace.” Now, though many of the original storytellers have died, their experiences live on through the young people’s research. “So on our side, it’s a kind of responsibility to the people who shared with you. These [stories] weren’t told to everybody; it was a very personal relationship between a child and an older person.”
Sejny, originated as a one-off to honor town elders in 1999, is now on its third generation of performers. “It’s not like a theater group, though of course we have workshops like voice emission,” Czyzewski said. “It’s something Bozena’s using as a time-long process, where the craft is thanks to [the kids] being immersed in the environment of the history and the memory of the town. They have five or six years to recognize the stories and know people, to interview them, to travel. They aren’t trained firstly to be on stage, they first are immersed in all this storytelling, and in memory processes.” Czyzewski spoke of workshops at the New School, and of expectations there that the company had come to reveal theatrical tactics. “Bozena said our only secret is that we don’t have to rush,” he said. “She has kids who she starts to work with in kindergarten, and it becomes a different way of thinking, in the performance aspect.”
The project of bringing Borderlanders (which may evolve to include the school community here) is the ambitious undertaking of the Polish Cultural Institute’s New York office. Before the final performance of Sejny, PCI presented La Mama founder Ellen Stewart, who has brought decades of intriguing Polish theater to La Mama, with its 2008 S.I. Witkiewicz Prize (named for the dramatist and absurdist who killed himself in 1940 when the Germans overran Poland). Though theater is but one of PCI’s projects, their impact is impressive: for example, they’re instrumental in bringing TR Warszawa, whose intermissionless production of Krum last year (see October 2007 Rail) demonstrated how an audience could thrive for almost three hours on a language most of us don’t have a clue about, because the performers were so cannily delving into enthralling theatrical “languages.” And keep your eyes peeled for TR’s outlandish, clawing production of Macbeth, which arrives in June at the Tobacco Warehouse in DUMBO and will make the Patrick Stewart vehicle now on Broadway smack of classy gore.
Père Another is the first collaboration between the performer/writer/painter MKS Volcofsky and Peter Jacobs, a founding member of Reza Abdoh’s company Dar a Luz in L.A., who, since moving here, has worked extensively with choreographer DD Dorvillier. At a rehearsal showing in Harlem, the duo’s Kicked Out of Death functioned on overwound coils: Jacob’s penetrating gaze and potent baritone (his opera debut was in 2006 at Summerscape); Volcofsky’s gaping mouth and the explosive stasis he attained, as if his very circulation were a subwoofer. Even the laughs in Kicked Out were on tenterhooks, with unison actions (a skirt is flung as a hat gets yanked) only spiking a mise-en-scène captioned with parched commentary: “Imagine just for a moment real gestures, human to human,” or “So there are two of us.” Cunts are the hot topic early on, then a mutual girlfriend writes “her weekly suicide note” to celebrate a holiday. Kicked Out fuses austerity with neuroses—a marriage, perhaps, of Jewish comedy traditions from the Lower East Side with more recent punk rigor—yet the rehearsal concluded with a potent feeling of rightness (this does not mean ease).
In an email exchange, Volcofsky, who goes offstage by Matthew Seidman, wrote of work that led up to Kicked Out, under the rubrik A’ Traveling Yeshiva Sideshow. “Everywhere I went, I had a knapsack full of texts—philosophy, Jewish texts, poetry, fiction,” Seidman explains, which he began terming “my traveling yeshiva. Soon that morphed into the sense of ‘sideshow,’ outside the main tent, cast-out, probably freakish…My work has always been identifiably Jewish, not in any theological sense but more like a kind of spiritual shrapnel that my writing and theater/performance discover in the ‘body’ of work.” For a Berlin festival called Nomadic New York, in August 2007, Seidman performed his first solo: “a three-hour, late night extravaganza of graphic dance/performance that included the building of a totem-easel and then painting a portrait from the memory of a prostitute who was murdered near Atlantic City.” Fur Egg was largely improvisational, where previous pieces had been scripted.
Seidman and Jacobs met leaving a Richard Foreman show in spring of last year, where Jacobs mentioned a favorite recollection: the decade-old show, BlackBox, that Seidman had done at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Society. The two began improvisational rehearsals that became Kicked Out, guided in part by drawings Jacobs admired on a visit to Seidman’s art studio. They intend to extend the piece, possibly to Berlin this summer, or in autumn to the Festival Mau in Portugal, where Seidman has presented his video works Shivah and Snow Vein. Seidman plans to remount Fur Egg here later this year, and to develop Oven (A temporary setback), the second panel of The Split Play, while Peter Jacobs will be performing Auto Skin in a car, as an opening salvo in his Architecture and Sand project.
The Polish Cultural Institute hosts a discussion on May 12 between Grzergorz Jarzyna, artistic director of TR Warszawa, and Susan Feldman of St. Ann’s Warehouse; for details, check polishculture-nyc.org.
For further info on TR Warszawa’s MacBeth, running June 17-29 at The Tobacco Warehouse in DUMBO, visit www.stannswarehouse.org.
And watch atravelingyeshivasideshow.com for information on Père Another and Fur Egg.