Three arched window doors with gauze drapes, billowed by the narrator’s feather duster; a tiny black circular stage rolled about, as are those pretty, creepy windows; a glowing backstage candelabra. That’s the set for Chopin–An Impression, by the Bialystok Puppet Theatre, which opens at La MaMa E.T.C. this month during their annual Puppet Series. And there’s a pair of pianos, of course. The one that’s full scale includes a human who renders the composer’s emotional melodies and harmonic extravagances. The other’s in the dexterous, oversized hands of Fryderyk Chopin, marionette.
For the Puppet Series’s fourth year, curator Denise Greber has selected both Chopin and the Wyczy Theatre’s Broken Nails. A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue, to spotlight Poland’s lauded puppetry. Dario D’Ambrosi and the Pathological Theater from Italy will open this edition. Jane Cathy Shaw returns with Folktales of Asia and Africa, her family show, and Aaron Haskell and Brooklyn Art Department get busy around Halloween with Wake Up, You’re Dead! A puppet exhibit will be on display, and on October 25 La MaMa’s 49th anniversary gala honors Cheryl Henson, of the Jim Henson Foundation.
Chopin’s grave is at Père Lachaise in Paris but his embalmed heart is in a pillar of the Holy Cross Church in central Warsaw, so he’s anything but a simple story. Bialystok wafts methodically into the tale, keeping things tenderly lit and early Romantic to the hilt. But be bolstered by the quicksilver intensity coursing from the piano, which, for the first week, will be played ardently and potently by Krzysztof Trzaskowski. Fryderyk, in his dressing gown, air-walks to the little circular stage, presaging consecutive suspended dances by his lady loves (yes, George Sand arrives, with a riding crop as extra-large as her cigarette holder). Each has her way with the lid of his piano—the toy version—then, in a fit of puppet-esque erotics, that piano goes into swirling fits.
Fryderyk’s arms, serviced by separate puppeteers in winged top hats, draw the eerie world of puppet art into captivating focus. At his composing podium, he lifts and wields a stylus, wrestling with the muses. In a late, revealing moment, five performers inhabit the stage, tending to Fryderyk’s needs as if illustrating Heinrich von Kleist’s ironic dialogue, “On the Marionette Theater.”
Then Bialystok director Leslaw Piecka pulls something of a reverse coup de thèâtre, and it gives away nothing to describe its grace. The pianist (human version) elaborates another of the composer’s breathtaking excursions, and sits as lights and the candelabra fade and go dark. A soft spotlight illuminates only the vacant toy piano. Chopin’s music is being played worldwide this year, in concerts and recitals celebrating his bicentenary. Bialystok, deft and wry, leaves the accompanying role ambiguous in their Chopin, and leaves their audience directly in his musical hands.
Denise Greber spoke on the phone about her curatorial selections for this year’s festival, including the Polish focus. Greber also works with Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company’s director Federico Restrepo (their new piece will conclude this year’s Puppet Series in November). Loco7 toured in Poland in 2003, including smaller cities with vibrant puppet scenes such as Lublin and Wroclaw.
“It’s been my experience working at La MaMa these past 11 years,” Greber said, “and working and touring in Poland, that they have a great, great respect for theater. It sounds like a sweeping generalization, but Poles love to go to the theater. They really support Polish theater, and they support international companies that come there.” She said the Loco7 played to great houses, and that Polish work draws great houses here. “They have it ingrained in their culture that art is important, and theater especially,” Greber said, noting the plentiful national theaters designated for puppetry.
Bialystok has represented tradition and innovation since it was established in 1953. Three years ago, Ewa Piotrowska staged the early Nabokov script, South Pole, about the blizzard-bound final days of Robert Scott’s polar expedition in 1912. Bialystok’s current director, Marek Waszkiel, has developed international collaborations, working with the Dutch puppeteer and dancer Eduardo de Paiva Souza, with the German master Frank Soehnle on the adaptation Cinnamon Shops (from Bruno Schulz’s celebrated stories) and with Alain Lecucq, who utilizes live performers and two-dimensional puppets with his Compagnie Papiertheatre.
While in Poland in March and April, I visited the Teatr Groteska Puppet, Mask and Actor Theatre in Krakow. Teatr Groteska was founded in 1945, and its building is a comfortable walk from vaulted cellars and courtyard spaces where Tadeusz Kantor generated masterworks such as Dead Class, chocked with actors and equally unnerving schoolboy manikins, which Ellen Stewart brought to La MaMa three decades ago. Groteska’s huge list of productions include plays by Brecht and Alfred Jarry. Up broad, carpeted stairwells, one passes exhibits of stage devices and livid puppets of all sizes, reminders of the blank slates these creatures are for us: static and enigmatic like statues or grinning corpses, sprung into hijinks at the tug of a string, ready to dispute in conundrums straight out of Lewis Carroll or Kathy Acker.
On the top floor, in Groteska’s recently renovated cupola theater, school kids absorbed a tale of the knight without his horse, with four actors appearing through wing panels and trap doors on an evocatively painted, ever-transforming stage cabinet. In their main theater, Groteska presents full spectacles that include Homage à Chagall, which premiered last year. With actors and dancers in masks, puppets, movement, projections, and zealous music, and without text, Chagall dreams and careens through the painter’s passion for his wife, Bella. A ghastly comic wedding sequence opens the piece, culminating when a bier is laid on the crimson tablecloth, holding dolls resembling the matrimonial couple, who are then harpooned ritualistically with what look like extra-long fondue forks. Jolts and gasps are assured in audiences of any age. The painter’s familiar red cow and cock appear, and rabbi puppets take shape from headstones that become flickering candles.
In their offices, the director Adolf Weltschek and stage designer Malgorzata Zwolinska said that even in Poland it’s an ongoing effort to keep puppet theater from being sidetracked as an art for children. They toured Chagall to Scandinavia this year; the big production would play strongly to audiences here, were an ambitious presenter to make the investment. Groteska hosts Prima Materia in mid-November, their International Festival of the Theatre of Form, with companies from Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland giving performances, conferences, and workshops.
Theaters in Poland went dark in early April, as the nation mourned the presidential couple and over 90 leaders who died in a jet crash at Smolensk in Russia. I’d arrived in Wroclaw for events at the Grotowski Institute, and the handsome building of the city’s renowned puppet theater, near the huge central market square, was silent. Puppets have played Shakespeare, Kafka, and Bruno Schulz on their stages. A Warsaw performance of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, was also cancelled. That new production places a life-size puppet as the nearly wordless anti-heroine, a role that Pina Bausch played in the 1970s before leaving acting to create new forms in dance theater. Ivona is by Witold Gombrowicz, a playwright almost never produced stateside—though, true to form, his Operetta was at La MaMa in 2005, in the New School’s spirited student production with Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov of the Living Theatre.
And at La MaMa in November there’ll be a life-size doll, thanks to Denise Greber and her taste for Polish puppetry. In Broken Nails, the doll will play Dietrich in the grand dame’s last days, on the artful arm of Anna Skubik. Skubik will perform as Dietrich’s caretaker and ventriloquist in a red tie and suspenders and with hustle, bustle, pathos and an impressively deployed steamer trunk.
Greber had considered numerous Polish productions, working with the Polish Cultural Institute, which has been indispensable in bringing work to theater stages from La MaMa and Lincoln Center to Brooklyn Academy of Music and St. Ann’s Warehouse. “I thought it was important, again with La MaMa’s history with Poland,” Greber said, “to honor Chopin and get that piece, which had its premier in March, and have its American premier here. And it was helpful that Broken Nails was a smaller show. Chopin is going to be in our Ellen Stewart Theatre, as it requires more space. I felt that Broken Nails was more flexible, and I imagined it working perfectly in our cabaret space. I just couldn’t pass it up.”
La MaMa Puppet Series IV, Built to Perform, plays through November; check lamama.org for schedules and information.