We live in an age where the internet has become an open archive. YouTube warehouses our collective nostalgia. (Oh, the hours I’ve lost watching old music videos and classic tennis matches!) But there are cultural forms that slip past our virtual nets.
Theater can be recorded, but the exchange between actors and an audience — the essence of the experience — cannot be captured. The soul of a performance exists only for a particular moment, returning in fragments of memory for those lucky enough to have been party to the vanishing act.
Throughout its long history, the Wooster Group, America’s preeminent experimental theater company, has conducted séances to communicate with the spirits of the theatrical past. The prevailing attitude has been playfully postmodern, but time has brought more emotional gravity to these occult sessions.
The company’s latest offering, “A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique),” at REDCAT through April 15, is a tribute to the visionary Polish director, theorist and visual artist Tadeusz Kantor, whose influence on 20th century theater was as profound as that of his countryman Jerzy Grotowski. I know the work of Kantor, who died in 1990, primarily from his disciples, the generation of great European directors who were liberated by his surreal stage collages, which blend personal memory with history and myth.
Director Elizabeth LeCompte was invited by Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz Institute to make a piece about Kantor. She had seen his staging of “The Dead Class” at New York’s La MaMa in 1979. But she was worried, as her program note confides, that the “temporal and cultural” gulf separating her from Kantor was too great. It wasn’t until LeCompte met Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, who appears on video in the production, that a path into the material was found.
The Wooster Group doesn’t do academic homages. The group peers into the past through a unique and intentionally disorienting multimedia lens. “A Pink Chair” isn’t so much a resurrection of Kantor’s aesthetic as a stirring encounter with it.
The production might be described as a theatrical palimpsest revealing the distinctive sensibilities of theatrical pioneers separated by language, culture and history yet united by a commitment to radical originality. The title, which substitutes a famous Wooster Group prop for the kitchen chair of one Kantor’s famous essays, exemplifies the artistic fusion.
The context of the performance is Krakowska’s own longing to recapture her father’s artistic presence. Video of Kantor’s daughter talking about the project with Wooster Group founding member and ensemble luminary Kate Valk is rough-hewn and unabashedly amateurish. We’re getting an informal backstage view rather than a refined representation.
The personal quality of the conversation haunts the production. An autobiographical ache animates this retrospective. A daughter searches for her father with the same brooding intensity with which he approached his art.
Divided into a prologue and five parts, “A Pink Chair” incorporates archival footage of both the rehearsal and the production of Kantor’s penultimate piece, “I Shall Not Return,” in which the director is onstage as characters and scenarios from his theatrical past assail him.
Zbigniew “Z” Bzymek, a Polish filmmaker donning black arty garb from an earlier era, assumes the role of Man in Place of Kantor. Wooster Group veterans, including Valk, Ari Fliakos, Jim Fletcher and Suzzy Roche, reprise in ghostly fashion the performances of Kantor’s flexibly precise actors.
Death hangs in the air. The graveyard of Polish history, the artist’s inescapable awareness of time and the ephemeral nature of theater itself make mortality palpable. But the atmosphere is as giddy as a fairground, a metaphor for Kantor, who found emotional realism in the antic jumble of genres and tones.
A group of actors seated at desks with phantom-like expressions evoked for me those denizens of limbo in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” though “The Dead Class” would be a more accurate reference. Kantor’s version of Stanisław Wyspiański’s “The Return of Odysseus” crystallizes both the impossibility and irresistible compulsion of revisiting what no longer remains.
“A shadow yearning for a shadow” — these words echo poignantly in the final phase of the production, which seeks earthly transcendence in music. The gorgeous choral crescendos have a dark sublimity in which irony is abandoned for something helplessly true.
“A Pink Chair” is a challenging work that had me often squinting in an effort to bring the shifting scenography into comprehensible focus. It’s easy to assume that you’re missing some essential background, and I had to talk myself out of feeling frustrated at various points.
Kantor is a foreign subject for most of us. But if you can comfortably exist in an alert state of ignorance, you may be emotionally rewarded, as I was, at the end. The elusive truth Kantor pursued through avant-garde means is reawakened by an American company following in the path he blazed.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique)’
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends April 15
Information: (213) 237-2800 or www.REDCAT.org
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
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