Made in Poland
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 5, 2008
Przemyslaw Wojcieszek is a rising star in Polish theatre and cinema; it's terrific to get a chance to sample his work at the Polish Cultural Institute's Made in Poland festival at 59E59. His play is in fact called Made in Poland, and it's a raw, potent, highly energized look at contemporary life in his country, post-Communism.
In 33 swift scenes, Made in Poland tells the story of Bogus, a very mixed-up kid living in the "projects" in an unnamed Polish city. (I am unsure as to whether "projects" connotes something specific in Poland that's different from what we think of here in the U.S.—i.e., public housing; it appears to be roughly the same concept as far as I can tell.) In the first section of the play, Bogus is on a rampage. "I'm fucking pissed off," he says. "I just woke up today and felt like that. It's like AIDS, it's burning me up. I go around all day wrecking phone booths."
He's embarking on a one-man revolution; after he wrecks some cars in a parking garage guarded by the disabled young man Emil, he seems about to acquire an ally. But one of the autos he's banged up is the property of a group of organized thugs who quickly derail Bogus's plan: they threaten to kill him unless he pays them 20,000 zlotys by the next morning.
And so Bogus shifts gears as he desperately tries to find the cash. His odyssey takes him to his former teacher, a drunken loser named Viktor; his mother; his priest; and Emil's sister, Monika, with whom he surprisingly falls in love. Bogus's world becomes progressively off-kilter and the tone of the play becomes more surreal as the story unravels. Looming over all is Polish singing icon Krzysztof Krawczyk, who may prove better able to save Bogus than even the priest.
Wojcieszek touches on a number of compelling issues in Made in Poland: the tension between authenticity and pretension (represented by all things American, detested by Bogus and perhaps embodied by the Elvis-like Krzysztof); a similar tension between the Church and secular philosophy; and the movement away from isolation rebellion and toward nurturing love. Wojcieszek has a great sense of humor—there's a terrifically telling exchange between Bogus and one of the gangsters about an American novel the latter is reading, which might be Catcher in the Rye or might be Children of the Corn.
The piece has the potential to reveal much about a country that's just rejoining the West after so many decades of totalitarian rule. Sadly, this potential is mostly squandered in Jackson Gay's indifferent production, which feels out-of-step with the playwright's intentions much of the time, in terms of tone and pacing as well as style. Gay goes for naturalism here, but I think Wojcieszek is instead playing with and stretching reality in his play. Ola Maslik's set is a spare and hideous jumble of wooden stairs and metal poles that conjures the poverty of Bogus's neighborhood but severely limits Gay's options in utilizing the space. There's a focus on odd details that's frequently jarring, as when the waitress at the bar Viktor brings Bogus to spends several minutes counting out the money in her cash register—something that's not called for in the script that distracts badly from the rest of what's happening on stage. No one in the cast comes across as entirely comfortable in their roles, with the possible exceptions of Ed Vassallo (as the priest) and Karen Young (as Bogus's mother). Kit Williamson (Bogus), Natalia Zvereva (Monika), and especially Jonathan Clem (Emil) are never convincing as teenagers.
Even more problematic than the performative and presentational issues, though, is the absence of any kind of context to help Americans access the play and its ideas. The five-paragraph program note by producers Kate Loewald and Lauren Weigel (for The Play Company) provides no background save that this is Wojciesek's American debut. They'd serve him better by giving us some clues about the social and economic milieu of his play, so that we in the audience being introduced to this obviously talented young artist might better appreciate what he wants to say to us.