All our tomorrows: TR Warszawa brings Macbeth to DUMBO

It stands to reason that TR Warszawa, the propulsive Polish company whose Krum just collected an Obie (for Krzysztof Warlikowski’s direction, at BAM in October 2007), is staging their willful adaptation of Macbeth in DUMBO. The riverfront streets beneath the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges are as dramatic as any terrain in New York City, and TR general director Grzegorz Jarzyna’s confrontational immediacy in updating Shakespeare’s gore fest seems echoed by DUMBO’s monolithic facades and tightly cropped Manhattan views.

Another connection is that the first stateside production by Jarzyna (jah-ZHIN-nah) was at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2004, when Risk Everything roller-coastered in on gangland fervor and the snide energy of Aleksandra Konieczna, the TR regular who plays Lady Macbeth. And TR is fitting their English-supertitled Macbeth into the roofless nineteenth-century Tobacco Warehouse, the first new site they’ve used since the original production snared international attention in 2005 in an abandoned Warsaw factory.

That gutted factory had been run by Bumar, the Polish arms manufacturer awarded a million-dollar contract after the Iraq invasion. In an interview with the Rail, Jarzyna said he’d been at work on a Macbeth scenario “closer to our time: Vietnam, for instance, or Chechnya or Bosnia, where so many generals were making their own rules,” and found the building shell had interconnected rooms and platforms on one tall wall that would accommodate the rapidly evolving scenes he envisioned, and provide the controlled environment required for Abel Korzeniowski’s eerie sound design. The site’s past life as a Bumar plant made for a harsh thematic resonance; within weeks of the fall of Baghdad, Jarzyna said, the Polish media “was writing about money and oil and how many workers and companies can go build up Iraq. It was pretty obvious the war was about money. In Macbeth, they’re not pretending they’re honest and upstanding guys.” After the play’s run, the city announced plans to convert the building into an arts space, but those assurances evaporated and TR had to settle for filming Macbeth last year for Polish TV, less than a month before the factory was razed for apartment developers.

The TV version bounds hellbent off the screen, situating the play’s power-addled factions in an unnamed Muslim land, and flaunting the textual and dramaturgical alterations that its director is prepared to wield. Jarzyna’s version jumpstarts with General Duncan (Waldemar Kownacki) glowering before screens illuminated with military targets. The rebel uprising forces him to order retreat, but on the intercom, Major Macbeth (Cezary Kosinski) countermands Duncan’s command, landing the First Scottish Airborne atop a mosque then spelunking into view in night-vision headgear, grenading the rebels on their prayer rugs then hacking off the leader’s head. (Jarzyna holds the riddles and prognostications until the action is steamrolling, then puts most of the weird sisters’ words in the lurid lips of their bald belle dame, Hecate, played by the elegant Danuta Stenka.)

At the victory celebration, Duncan’s son upbraids his cold-eyed father for stooping to “new tactics,” nargiles burble and the commander’s guard dons Ray-Bans with a Blackwater cool. The party heads into dissolution with strap-ons and an Elvis impersonator, then the knocking at the gate transpires on security surveillance screens (as will Macduff’s misery). Jarzyna cleaves to the compulsion at Macbeth’s heart, backlighting shady conversations into stairwells, and sustaining brittle tension as the Macbeths vie for control. Most of the text is Shakespeare, from the bird that clamored through the night to “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?” and “Be bloody, bold and resolute,” though Lady Macbeth says “Are you on something?” to Banquo (Tomasz Tyndyk, as harrowed as a cat in a car), and the sedative cyklotropin gets name-checked, as do the Bard’s cyme and rhubarb. Lady Macbeth begins her deterioration with scalding howls, and Macbeth traverses corridors peopled with sinister figures (their film counterparts might be in Tarkovsky’s Solaris or The Shining’s Overlook Hotel) and a clown in red, white and blue, then backs upstairs where his now-mad wife occupies a crimson sofa with Hecate. The demiurge, unnervingly stylish, dictates a ten-minute passage of caustic moral abandon that veers from Macbeth’s desperate boot-camp orders to his wife, to the couple’s silent waves from the balcony as a crowd roars—as concise a send-up of politicians and tyrants as theater can offer.

Photo by Stefan Okolowicz

On a clear May afternoon in the Tobacco Warehouse, Jarzyna spoke about Macbeth, sheltering from the turbulent sonic atmosphere along an antique brick wall. He said that Susan Feldman, artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, met with him the day after the Warsaw opening in 2005, “and she said ‘I want this.’ We had invited Richard Lanier [director of the Trust for Mutual Understanding] as well, and he said ‘I will put in a certain amount of money.’” Jarzyna credited Feldman’s strength and commitment through some three years of raising the budget necessary to bring 32 of TR’s performers and tech people, and to devise a portable set that allows the company to tour Macbeth.

“Susan would have liked to put it in her theater but it’s too small, only seven meters [23 feet] high and we need at least eleven meters [36 feet],” to accommodate Macbeth’s terraced stages. “I flew three times from Warsaw to look at [site] proposals,” he said. “Manhattan, Williamsburg, the shipyards. Then we looked at this space—the idea had been hanging around but no one was ___ [Jarzyna may have said “crazy” or “brave” but helicopters and bridge traffic warped the word] enough to do it, because it’s open air. We recorded this sound and checked it in computers to see how it worked with the style of music. Our [sound] guy said ‘No; there’s no silence at all there.’” Necessity, though, is a mother, and TR’s lighting designer, Jacqueline Sobiszewski, “came quickly with the idea of silent disco, where they put on headphones and you don’t hear anything but the dancing.” The idea of the audience wearing headphones went from an absurdity to a solution and will up the ante of unease and intimacy, as will Jarzyna’s decision to project several soliloquies he’d left out of his original script. “I realized we could picture them [the Macbeths], using cameras,” he said, “and they could speak straight to the audience and share their thoughts—the killers bringing us to their thinking. They see everything in these monologues, and that’s Shakespeare, of course.”

The night before the Tobacco Warehouse interview, Jarzyna did a public presentation at CUNY’s Martin E. Segel Theatre Center, along with Susan Feldman (whose St. Ann’s Warehouse is co-presenting Macbeth with the Polish Cultural Institute). He spoke of the crucial role Poland’s theaters and churches had played in the demise of communism, at which point the nation’s capitalist phase began and no one wanted to run (or fund) the theaters, which led to Jarzyna taking over TR in 1998, as he turned 30. He’d studied philosophy and traveled as far as Papua New Guinea, on the tracks of theater visionaries such as Artaud and the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, then he studied with Krystian Lupa (one of Lupa’s adaptations from Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard is expected for the 2009 Lincoln Center Festival). Lank and immediate, Jarzyna scrolled a laptop through highlights of his decade’s work with TR, and his love of cinema gleams in early work from the Polish master absurdist S.I. Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy) and Brad Fraser. With Jarzyna, though, love’s a two-way street, and he acknowledged that theater can “learn from the movies: editing, close-ups, expressions, atmosphere, sound editing,” while making his devotion clear: “Movies never get the energy, the vibration of the human being,” he said. “In my opinion, theater is a much higher art than the cinema. It’s real; it smells.” He staged contemporary pieces by Sarah Kane (4:48 Psychosis) and Dogma director Thomas Vinterberg before tackling the span of Western theater: Macbeth, Giovanni (from Molière and Mozart), Medea (his first original script with TR), and most recently James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter in a coproduction with Vienna’s venerable Burgtheater.

Giovanni premiered in ’06: On an archival DVD, the mute opening seduction scene between Giovanni and Elvira collapses into assault when her father breaks into the posh bathroom, then sliding walls form an aperture that reveals the arch antagonist’s misadventures, gradually opening to the huge scene in his penthouse digs. Mozart’s fabulous arias and vocal confrontations are piped in (recorded by the Polish National Opera Orchestra) and mimed by TR’s actors, demonstrating again that Jarzyna’s sense of theatrical protocol is highly motile. His passion for music pervades the performance (mambos and piano trios grease its cruel momentum), as it does in each of his pieces, from the thrash of Risk Everything to Macbeth’s persistent soundscapes, where even the debauchery preceding Duncan’s assassination quivers with an uneasy ambience. Then Macbeth and Hecate chant a late lyric—“Hello, is there anyone in there?”—before she disappears, leaving the self-appointed leader to his fate.

Macbeth runs June 17–29 at the Tobacco Warehouse in DUMBO. For information and tickets: www.artsatstanns.org or call the Box Office at 718-254-8779.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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