For one of its reports before last fall's Reagan-Gorbachev summit, National Public Radio looked at perestroika in the Soviet Union. The reporters had a choice of looking at any cog in the economy, and they chose the shoe industry. Everyone needs shoes.
Playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz made the same choice back in 1934, when he wrote "The Shoemakers," his parable on totalitarianism, labor, and how the extremes of right and left eventually meet. In his nameless (but seemingly Slavic) country, where coups appear commonplace, his heroes are The Essential Workers: They make shoes. They are their work.
But this play, and Kazimierz Braun's production at the Odyssey, are a world away from socialist realism. Both the play and this staging drop us down the chute of absurdism, where the most painful laughter and the worst nightmares reside. Near the end, our heroes, having become The State, transform into the enemy they had previously fought. And matters only get worse.
For all its didacticism, its densely political dialogues and highly modernist style, "The Shoemakers" impresses us as a report from the front, for both Witkiewicz and Braun are Poles. (The playwright, credited by critic Martin Esslin as a founding father of the Theatre of the Absurd, killed himself in his Nazi-occupied homeland only days after the Soviets invaded from the east, in 1939). Poles, who know imperialism of any stripe from the wrong end of the barrel, are in a cruelly blessed position to contemplate this century's madnesses.
Witkiewicz's weapon of choice is art, but the ending of this play suggests that art may not have enough firepower. An American director, with pioneer American optimism, might have injected hope into the tale's denouement. Director Braun, however, remains true to the text and his origins, and locks all exits. This is the most European local production, and the most politically sobering one since. . . .
Well, since the Odyssey's "Master Class" last year. Ron Sossi (an American director deeply influenced by Europe's theater) directed that one; a visitor to "The Shoemakers," without glancing at the program, might guess that Sossi directed this as well. It has the Sossi trademarks: thought-out ensemble work, inventive "working class" design (Susan Lane did the wonderful, multitiered set, Ann M. Archibald did the continually surprising lights, and Anna Ungar Herman did the amazing array of costumes), interweaving of text and music (compositions by Darryl Archibald and Zbigniew Karnecki), and Brechtian alienation (to be sure, Witkiewicz predated and informed Brecht's stage-conscious theater). It is exactly what one would expect as an ideal successor to the intellectual entertainments of "Master Class," and before that, "Johnny Johnson."
Like those two works, as well, there is a display here of the deft counterpoint of human comedy and serious arguments, as if these lives really mattered. Wayne Grace's Sajetan, the master shoemaker, may not have the charisma of an ensemble leader like Ralph Bruneau's Johnny Johnson or Gene Dynarski's Stalin in "Master Class." Instead, he has the gruff charm of a man in love with his work who stumbles to the throne. He even looks charming with an ax plunged into his balding head, partly because it's a stage effect.
This is theater that presents itself as such, with characters who seldom talk like "real" people. Fortunately, this is the right story for the style, since Louis R. Plante's Scurvy, the first dictator, sees himself as performer for the masses (he speaks into a radio mike, like Mussolini, and like bad Italian films, the lips aren't quite in sync). His wife, the lascivious Duchess (Marilyn Fox), likes to perform for the shoemakers. Politics is a show.
This cast fathoms it all, and lets the fine but wordy translation by C.S. Durer and Daniel Gerould roll off the tongue. Many theatergoers, so long weaned on living-room theater, may wish the exits had been locked before they got in. But that's one of the problems of living-room theater, which "The Shoemakers" clearly considers the real enemy.
Performances are at 12111 Ohio Ave., West Los Angeles, on Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $12.50-$16.50; (213) 826-1626.