Sandbox and The First Time
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
November 13, 2008
It is not only refreshing, but intellectually challenging to experience new work from different cultures. For that reason alone I applaud 59E59 for hosting Made in Poland: A Festival of New Polish Plays, presented by the Polish Cultural Institute. In Sandbox/The First Time, two one-act plays by Michal Walczak, there are additional reasons for applause—specifically, talented casts, bold use of repetition, smart sets, and keen directing.
The plays focus on gamesmanship between the sexes and both deliver vigorous and energetic performances. In Sandbox, a young self-absorbed boy, Alberic, is caught up in his Batman fantasy. He spins and re-spins scenarios in which he, Batman, is needed to challenge the evil action figure he holds. He pushes his toy bus along the rim of the sandbox as he edits and elaborates, retraces his steps and improves on the story until Milla, a young girl, steps in with her doll, forcing Alberic to literally draw a line in the sand to give his imagination full reign. While it is an act of a bully, it is the first step in Alberic's surrender to Milla; by drawing the line, he acknowledges her and accommodates her. The two play in parallel universes, but over time Alberic adjusts to Milla's presence. His acceptance is never as clear as the day after Milla moves from the neighborhood. Alone, his fantasies lose their potency. Alberic has grown up.
The dialogue mixes childish give-and-take with free-flowing adult language. Hristo Hristov gives Alberic's obsessive fantasy focus and drive. His sheer bulk dominates the excellent three-dimensional, abstract sandbox designed by Robert Monaco as do his monologues. Yet, Jelena Stupljanin's quiet, ethereal loveliness is commanding. Her pale, perfect complexion against frizzy red pigtails, hiked high on her head, command attention. She is a fine example of the importance of silence to hear sound or the role of white space in making color pop. Sandbox, directed by Piotr Kruszczynski, balances the two characters beautifully.
The First Time, directed by Marcy Arlin, uses many of the same instruments as Sandbox—obsessive repetition, a mixture of childish and adult behavior, and tension initiated by the battle of the sexes. The play starts strong, with absurdist elements that are intriguing and funny. A young man, Charles, knocks at his girlfriend's door in the wee hours of a stormy night. He brings flowers, because she, Maggie, is terribly upset and needs him to comfort her. No. Let's try that again. He knocks, she answers, he forgets to give her the flowers, it's not raining, but he's wearing a rain-jacket, and spritzes his hair with water in simulation of rain that proves he would come over at any hour under any conditions. It's a set up for the perfect seduction. Although, of course, with all the rehearsal, it is anything but perfect.
Lisa Hugo and Robert Baumgardner play the two game players with innocence and dedication, infusing their exercise with the necessary conflict and frustration. The problem I had was that the playwright pushes the plot too far, which is, I suppose, what absurdist theatre is about. But, I felt it lost focus, and with it, credibility. In an effort to spring surprises on the audience, it seems that Walczak leaves his initial premise to pursue tangential ideas, and I, for one, wasn't satisfied that the first intriguing moments had been fully realized.
Robert Monaco's sets are clever and eye-catching. Lighting, by Christopher Weston, is inventive; costumes—Jola Lobacz for Sandbox and Grainne Coen for The First Time—complement the absurdist elements of the plays. Coen also introduces just the right props to make each play work. Pawel Dampc's musical compositions add bold duality to Sandbox: the violence of war and the appeal of rock 'n' roll. Elizabeth Rhodes designed sound.
Sandbox/The First Time is worth seeing. While playwright Michal Walczak is not new to the theatre scene, his work is new to me. I like knowing that that there is a world of courageous ideas and new voices waiting to be discovered.