Monday, April 9, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Looking for Kantor" (on The Wooster Group's "A Pink Chair")

looking for kantor
by Douglas Messerli

The Wooster Group A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), performed at Redcat (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) / the performance I saw with Pablo Capra was a matinee on April 8, 2018

For several decades now, as Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty reminded me this morning, The Wooster Group (founded in 1975) has been skewering the theatrical and musical history of the US, Europe, and, on occasion, South America. I have seen several of these productions, including Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the group’s rendition of Early Shaker Spirituals, Harold Pinter’s The Room, and, on film, their production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones—and there have been numerous others, including their noted production of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Not all of these succeed as theatrical works; sometimes the skewering comes closer to farce, as in La Didone, or obscurantism as in their Shakespeare send-up. Yet nearly all are interesting, demanding one rethink the originals.

      Their newest work, A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), suffers some simply because most of the audience, I am sure, has never seen a production of the Polish theater artist Tadeusz Kantor, a figure in Poland who is as well-known as his fellow countryman, Jerzy Grotowski. And I too suffered through much of this very complex and sometimes impenetrable play with a feeling of deep confusion. As the intelligent woman from Jerusalem, who sat next to me at the Sunday matinee, said, upon standing to leave, “Do you have to understand a work in order to like it? Because I enjoyed it with having a clue to what it all means.” I promised her that I would try to make sense of it, but I think to do so would mean I would have had to have studied Kantor’s work, and I’ve never experienced a single performance which he directed, let alone the work central to this production, I Will Never Return from 1988. If nothing else, I now am most interested in Kantor’s theater, and will surely try to uncover other works in an attempt to comprehend his directorial methods.

To give Wooster Group director, Elizabeth LeCompte and the often collaborative performers credit—in this case, Zbigniew “Z” Bzymek, Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos (who miraculously gets younger every year), Jim Fletcher, Enver Chakartash, Suzzy Roche, Danusia Trevino, Erin Mullin, and Gareth Hobbs, along with, on film, Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska—they have attempted to give us a roadmap into what they are attempting to do through extensive use of tapes from Kantor’s own productions anda rather rambling, and somewhat inconsequential interviews in a Manhattan restaurant with his daughter.
     Indeed, LeCompte argues that it was only through Krakowska that she found a way to enter this work, even though she, herself, had seen the director’s Dead Class in a production at New York’s La Mama. At least we can now perceive what the actors are alluding to, and why they are telling us about this strange story, in which the director sits on stage with his characters, serving as a sort of frightening shadow-figure that often enrages and engages the characters of the play. LeCompte even quotes a few lines from the text, presumably representing Kantor’s own viewpoints:

in a moment I will enter with my “luggage”
a shabby and suspicious
I have traveled to it for a long time.
At nights.
Sleepless nights.
I have traveled here to meet.
I am not sure what, with apparitions or people.
To say I’ve been creating them
for many, many years
would be an overstatement.
I gave them life, but they also gave me theirs.
They were not easy to deal with; nor were they obedient.
They have traveled with me a long time
and gradually left me at various roads and stops.
Now, we are to meet her.
Maybe for the last time.

     In short, a bit like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the characters of this play encounter their own creator, not precisely a friendly guy; and the play centers, in its postmodern way, about the interactions of the director and the figures who make his plays come alive.

         The inn-keeper (Fliakos), constantly cleans up the tables, moving the characters about as if, at times, they were mere props; yet these figures, particularly his long-suffering, stalwart, and nearly silent wife, act, challenge, and even threaten their “creator,” while he seeks throughout what is described as “a shadow of a shadow,” a vision of life based on reality but, like this company’s own productions, skewered to make us see it differently, and, most importantly, as something contorted and discomforting.

This is a story of how life and art come together without truly meeting up. The pink chair of the title, (like several of the characters) is merely a prop, something that stands in for the real thing or even a faux antique which might more fully suggest it. Reality, particularly in the hands of Kantor, 
does not exist. His figures, men with breasts and women with penises, are shifting multi-sexual beings who quickly transform from posturing actors (several in dunce hats) into a beautiful singing chorus—music has always been an important element of the Wooster Group’s plays, and this they sing everything from an Argentinian tango, a Catholic hymn, a Jewish hymn, and remarkable Protestant hymn, “Bound for the Promised Land.”
      If the company, with a grant from the Polish Adam Mickiewicz Institute, is constantly seeking a way inside to Kantor’s work, so too Dorota, an actor in some of his dramas, is seeking a way into better knowing her often absent father.  So, in a true sense this play represents a kind of double-helix of daughter and theater company working with different motives and on different levels to comprehend their subject of admiration.
     Of course, in the end it is an impossible and meaningless task no matter how fascinating and worthy, as the introduction of Odysseus from Kantor’s production of Stanisław Wyspiański’s play The Return of Odysseus reiterates. All those travels and adventures, those endless sleepless nights, as Kantor/Odysseus ask, have been for naught: a shadow of a shadow, something any of us might feel as we come to end of our lives. To try, as the Wooster Group company does, to enter another’s world is always a near impossible task. Yet, as my theater-going neighbor out-rightly admitted, is was a lot of fun!

Los Angeles, April 9, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2018).

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