nytheatre.com review by David Vining
November 11, 2009
The revival of Wormwood showing now through Sunday at the Abrons Arts Center is a must-see for anyone interested in experimental theater, political history, or theater history. Beyond that it is a wonderfully meaningful hour of theater full of empathy, insight, and spirit. Go see it while you can. Seating is limited, call now!
The Theatre of the Eighth Day presents Wormwood in Polish with its original cast. Their 1985 production was not only banned by the Communist regime, but caused the group to officially cease to be. When the company was given First Prize at the Edinburgh Festival later that same year, Polish authorities claimed the group "did not exist."
All this is interesting, and we can only wonder what it was like to see this collective when they were young revolutionaries performing in churches and underground cultural organizations throughout Poland during that time. But that's not the amazing thing. The amazing thing is that their work is still so vital.
Presented in an intimate, appropriately industrial, concrete room and with the cast roaming in the shadows behind the audience, Wormwood is a visceral and visual feast. Found objects, homemade and gathered costumes, water and fire combine to create a unique aesthetic that captivates.
The imagery is strong in the play. Religious overtones mix with more elemental motifs. Water is seen as a vehicle for dreams (a ship that sails the sea of dreams) but also part of the drudgery of daily toil, and even a tool for self-flagellation. Fire is seen both as something to light the way and also a destructive, despairing force. The offbeat and often allegorical choices of ritual action or object don't always make literal sense, but the meaning assigned to a given thing in a given moment is always clear and powerful.
The cast know each other like the backs of their hands, having worked together for over 30 years, and it shows. The tightly choreographed movements of Wormwood come together so organically that the whole piece seems to have one shared heartbeat. The entire gamut of human emotion is seen in the faces, bodies, and voices of each of the four performers.
I haven't even mentioned the simple, integrated set, which allows the actors to move easily amongst the audience and uses levels to create at least four other distinct playing areas. There is also thoughtful, evocative lighting throughout. And there's music. Lovely, terrible, evocative music, sung, listened to, and used throughout to create meaning and mood. Group director (and fellow actor) Ewa Wojciak clearly pays attention to detail, and it pays off.
Theater of the Eighth Day describe themselves as uncompromising and that challenge is in the air, but the show is also remarkably charming, quirky and good-hearted. There is no dourness, preaching, pomposity, irony, or partisan politics. They present a very particular slice of the human experience in all its dirty complexity.
The play is political, of course, and personal. Indeed the emotional ire of the piece is not aimed at any government, but the people of their oppressed homeland. The message is to shake off their fatalistic gloom and rediscover their humanity. That message is still strong and resonant in 2009 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "Wake up!" they seem to say. Fear and suspicion and tyranny are around the corner if you don't remember to love each other.
Don't let the supertitles scare you (much of the play is physical anyway and lines tend to be repeated as part of rituals or songs—and there's even some English mixed in with the Polish) just go see this beautiful, haunting, rewarding piece of living theater performed by masters of their own unique style of theater—a style we do not see enough of here in New York.