In the 25 years of its existence, the Staniewski Center for Theatre Practices (Gardzienice), a theater company based in tiny Gardzienice outside Lublin, Poland, has presented only five full productions -- works acclaimed for their sheer rigor of invention and execution. Saturday, at the Getty's Harold M. Williams Auditorium, local audiences were privileged to see two performances of the group's "Metamorphoses," a "theatrical essay" inspired by the writings of the 2nd century Platonist, Lucius Apuleius.
Those who dismiss avant-garde theater as a sham perpetuated by the intellectually supercilious have never encountered this group. It's the real thing, a dedicated collective that brings us as close to the divine essences of art and the theater as we are likely to get in this frictional, fractious culture.
The lapidary "Metamorphoses" has been polished over the course of countless months by Wlodzimierz Staniewski, the visionary behind Gardzienice. A former disciple of Jerzy Grotowski, Staniewski had a highly public parting from his mentor shortly before he founded the Staniewski Center. Staniewski functions as director and adapter-writer for his center's works, all of which are specifically music-based and nonlinear.
In "Metamorphoses," Staniewski has accomplished a feat of anthropological theater that is arguably unprecedented. Based on text fragments in the original Greek, the play has recycled the hymns and discourses from these "living stones" and papyri into an almost indescribable melange of music, song and text, alternately spoken in English, Polish and Greek. The songs are sung in "Pythagorean scale," the dances inspired by the poses on ancient Greek vases, the acting as akin to the style of Thespis as can be hypothetically imagined.
If all this sounds turgid and academic, it's not. "Metamorphoses" is a whirling Dionysian revel, a hail and farewell to the flawed and humanistic Greek gods who, in Apuleius' time, were being swept away by the rising tide of Christianity. As the actors chant, whirl and posture, broader themes emerge. At one point, a suffering Christ and a joyous Dionysus stand in perfectly balanced juxtaposition -- until Dionysus turns suddenly sorrowful, Christ joyful -- a piquant commentary on the fine line separating religious beliefs.
The performances are almost impossibly focused and fluid. This is not so much a cast as it is a living organism. The ensemble includes Tomasz Rodowicz, Mariusz Golaj, Marcin Mrowca, Elzbieta Rojek, Joanna Holcgreber, Dorota Porowska, Anna Helena McLean, Grzegorz Podbieglowski, Anna Dabrowska and Agnieszka Mendel -- all zealous, all gifted. Musical adapter Maciej Rychly also deserves praise.
Apuleius' quote, "know only that which is solemn, joyful, holy, sublime, heavenly," forms the philosophical core of the play. Note that contradictory "solemn" and "joyful." There's that fine line again, the line between life and death, sorrow and rapture, that is so richly drawn by Staniewski and his company of joyful bacchants, who lead us merrily into catharsis.