Review: Brilliantly neurotic, the Polish avant-garde finds a home in L.A., with CalArts’ help
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, who called himself Witkacy, was a multitalented, multi-genre trickster. He was, in no special order, a brilliant playwright, painter, philosopher, photographer, novelist, Polish cultural theorist and all-around gadfly.
Early in the 20th century, he was at the center of the Polish avant-garde. He was a freethinker. He sought out extreme feelings and experiences, which included experimenting with hallucinogenic ideas and sexual freedom. He was a curmudgeon who extolled humbug at the same time he promoted what he called “Pure Form.” He was a Russian officer in World War I. He was a close friend of the two greatest Polish musicians of his time, Arthur Rubinstein (who mentioned Witkacy as an influence the one time I met the pianist) and Karol Szymanowski (the composer had hoped to write an opera with Witkacy). At age 54 and in poor health, Witkacy committed suicide in 1939, fleeing the Nazi invasion of Poland.
He was not Dada and he fought the Futurists. He was a radical obsessed with both revolution and order, an incorrigible skeptic and an insightful metaphysician. In my student days at Berkeley, his magisterial novel “Insatiability” was taught as a major work of experimental 20th century literature along with the likes of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” and Gertrude Stein’s “The Making of Americans.” Today, in American anyway, Witkacy has become obscure. Slim pickings on Amazon, where “Insatiability” ranked 1,020,212st on the site’s bestseller list when I checked.
But there is, at least, the very welcome “Witkacy/Two-Headed Calf” at REDCAT, a collaboration between Studio teatrgaleria of Warsaw and the CalArts Center for New Performance. This is a modern take on “Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf.” Witkacy added the subtitle “A Tropical-Australian Play in Three Acts.” It is directed by Natalia Korczakowska, who is artistic director of teatrgaleria, and she has taken it out of the tropics and made the mind of and matter of its metaphysics that of the psychotic folly of modern society.
A word about teatrgaleria and Korczakowska, who is seen as one of the most promising young European opera directors: teatrgaleria is both gallery and performance venue, and just about as confusingly mixed in its media as was Witkacy. It has a Fluxus vibe. Media is experimentally mixed, yet teatrgaleria is where Warsavians can go if they want to catch the HD broadcasts of the Met’s antediluvian (by European standards) productions.
Cast and production team for “Two-Headed Calf” come from Warsaw and from CalArts. No longer is the setting British New Guinea, Sydney and Australian gold mines of a century ago. Silly family, silly royalty, silly half-naked chief Aparura, silly stockbroker, silly bacteriologist, to say nothing of the good-looking, blond Prince von und zu Thurm und Parvis, have been transformed. Their silliness becomes us. Every family may be dysfunctional in its own way, but Witkacy happened to be a master of familial dysfunction who could give Tolstoy lessons in trouble.
The changes are extreme. Time and place are updated; characters are altogether different — and so is a good deal of the text and structure of the play. Young actors are allowed to employ their own ideas about identity, this being 2019. We are now left with a many-headed “Calf.” Witkacy skewered clichés of his day; we acclaim our own.
Still, this is a provocative, original and exceptionally well-executed production willing to ask impossible-to-answer questions. Trying to summarize the plot is uselessly crazy-making for a review. It begins with a daydreamer mama’s boy, Patricianello, lackadaisically encouraging a Queen (Symone Holmes), dressed for a party, to take peyote and to tell him all about it.
The “moldy old Mother,” Lady Leocladia Clay (Ewa Blaszczyk), is in the background on a sofa falling to pieces. She’s going to die in the second act and unleash a wave of neuroticism on all. Coincidentally, the same fluid, late-Beethoven piano sonata (Opus 101) that Jonathan Biss played last week at the Soraya in Northridge, is heard in the background, music of transcendence (to where?). Witkacy wrote in the introduction to the play that music’s complete freedom from any demands of real-life truth is “necessary for the potential growth of new dramatic forms.”
Korczakowska adds yet another art form. She titles the second act “Whispers and Cries,” turning around the title of Ingmar Berman’s film about a dying mother and her daughters. Patricianello and his two fathers (don’t ask) wear old-fashioned, long white dresses.
Everyone has an idea of the meaning of life or its lack thereof, which are the same, Witkacian thing, except when they’re not. A folk singer honks out “Overcome your indifference, be yourself.”
Maintaining Witkacy’s pure form is Korczakowska’s biggest challenge. It’s there but obscured by the big personalities onstage. A kind of hallucinatory wisdom pervades Salmah Beydoun’s imaginative stage of a room with gauze walls, rear-screen projections and neon. Patricianello and his brother Ludwig (Bartosz Porczyk) both love their sister Mirabella (Pricilla Chung). I think that’s how it works. I could be wrong, because being wrong is the point. We’re left with the thought that we must “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no,” but, of course, that’s got to be more Witkacy neurotic-art tricksterism. Two-headedness could, by this point, be the definition of being.
I’ve left out Jack Rivers (Terrence Wilburn), Professor Edward Mikulini-Penchbaur (Krzysztof Zarzecki), Sir Robert Clay (Chance Lang) and the other Patricianello (Rett Keeter), this one hooded and the personification of death. Attention-getting lunatics all, sacrificing sanity for the higher aims of art.
The last line in the play is a suggestion we have something to drink, it will do us a world of good. Indeed.
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday
Running time: 2 hours
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