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The Wooster Group Resurrects Kantor’s Spirit at Bard

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 16th, 2017

The Wooster Group

The Wooster Group, America’s topnotch Experimental Theater Group, kicked off Bard College’s SummerScape with the world premiere of A PINK CHAIR (IN PLACE OF A FAKE ANITQUE), a dramatic homage to the Polish artist and director Tadeusz Kantor this past weekend as part of the 100th birthday celebration of Kantor. This Obie and Bessie Award-winning company under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte recreates the ambient sensibility of the Polish underground theater under Hitler and during Soviet occupied Poland.

This production centers upon the themes of despair, memory, and spirit. This is Theater of the Absurd where conventional notions of theater are dispensed with in favor of something new. Practically speaking, such experimental theater is always more intellectual than emotional, more interested in statement than effect, situation than plot, and more focused on ensemble acting rather than developing characters. The stage is often more in the imaginative mind of the beholder than the physical props on stage.  

The play appropriates cinema as one of its themes. A short introductory documentary clip with Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, illustrates how cinema can address past memories in a dignified manner. This clip serves as a humanistic foil for satirizing both current cinema and traditional script playwriting as indulging in repetitive robotic ritual that offers a clownish, narcissistic spectacle. In this production all props are cast-off objects inhabiting nightmarish, tawdry qualities of the past: censorship, lack of funding for the arts, and especially political repression. How does one write, direct, or act during a period of political repression? That remains the contemporary question as the play probes backward toward the dismal situation of Kantor, a heroic figure who could never achieve the Odyssean dream of returning to his past home because the spirit of his Muse and nation was so afflicted by the protracted nightmare of oppression.

There is no exaggeration here. I recall being in Warsaw in 1982 under martial law. Of the three cafes that were permitted to be open, only one offered a quarter teaspoon of sugar with tea. There were no pastries. People spoke in whispers. Long trainloads of beet sugar had left for Russia, leaving Poland dry. Kantor attempted to build “a bridge between the audience and the kingdom of death.” LeCompte achieves this hope with a rousing chorus finale of Polish immigrants shipboard singing their way to freedom in America. Yet this situation contains a frisson: what optimistic hopes and aspirations gained in the past are eroding today in America?

Under political repression Kantor said that he did not have a Muse, that the spirit of the nation is also the Muse of the poet. Kantor, ably performed as a half-ghost by tall pale, Zbignew Bzymek, in the play is depicted as a failed Odysseus, thus evoking Kantor’s 1988 penultimate play, I Shall Never Return. Aspects of Kantor’s situation and despair have now entered our current artistic world which sees the triumph of banal television over all the arts. The play offers an intellectual dialogue between the past and present, leaving the viewer with many conundrums to contemplate and discuss.

The most memorable aspect of this production remains the solo and choral songs which contain a redeeming spirit, the finale especially so. One of the songs is set to a Chopin Scherzo, Op. 20. This year’s Bard SummerScape extravaganza centers about Fryderyk Chopin and His World. The play at Bard’s LUMA Theater runs until July 23. Tickets may be purchased by calling 845-758-790 or going online at www.fishercenter.bard.edu