nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 23, 2010
Who are we? Are we what we do ... or what we make ... or what we think we are?
That's the fundamental question at the root of Saviana Stanescu's fascinating new play Polanski Polanski, which was given a brief exploratory run by Nomad Theatrical Co. last week as part of HERE's Summer Sublet Series. Featuring a remarkable, compelling performance by Grant Neale and fluid and often surprising direction by Tamilla Woodard, Polanski Polanski is a show that deserves to be seen again.
The subject, as you have undoubtedly realized, is director Roman Polanski. In the talkback that followed the performance I attended, one audience member said that the first thing she thought of whenever she heard Polanski's name was the fact that he had been convicted for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, an event that happened in 1977 (as opposed to, say, his being an Oscar-winning director for the much more recent film The Pianist).*
This idea is right at the heart of Stanescu's play. She makes no claim to writing a documentary here (there's a very interesting account of the genesis of the piece, which stems from Neale's uncanny physical resemblance to Polanski and some cosmic coincidental resemblances as well, in the program). Instead, Stanescu, Neale, and Woodard seek to probe the psychology of a man who has done the things that Polanski has done: how can the creator of meaningful art like Chinatown (which is alluded to throughout the piece) also be the perpetrator of a monstrous act like raping a teenage girl? To try to fathom this, Polanski Polanski journeys inside its protagonist's mind at three pivotal moments: just before the rape; eight months later, on the day that Polanski decides to flee the United States rather than risk receiving a long jail sentence; and now, some 32 years later, as Polanski is placed under house arrest in his chalet in Switzerland. We hear what director Woodard calls Polanski's inner monologue: self-indulgent and possibly psychadelically-induced in the first scene, as he becomes overwhelmed by an artist's quest for beauty and perfection while succumbing to forbidden temptation; ironic and self-aware in the final scene, as he mixes regret with bitterness while musing on the spectacle of his "victim" appearing on The Larry King Show. In between is the pivotal moment of decision, where we see perhaps the "realest" Polanski of all: a coward hating his cowardice, saving his skin and deliberately turning himself into a permanent exile from the rest of humanity.
That Polanski Polanski takes us to such interesting and varied places is testament to its strength and prowess. The writing is astonishing—Stanescu draws on her own Romanian background to plumb Polanski's Eastern European sensibility and to provide some context via his early history. Woodard roots the piece in a heightened reality that always feels internally consistent. Neale's performance is extraordinary in its depth and physicality—we really feel like we're inside this man's head whether we're observing him in his own weird dance of seduction in the first scene or tethered (metaphorically) to a chair when under house arrest in the last. And there's a stunning moment of violent reaction in the middle section where Neale seems to tear at last into the profound rage that must have fueled some of Polanski's actions.
It's a shame that the current economics of theatre-making mean that only a couple of hundred people got to see Polanski Polanski in its inaugural run at HERE. Let's hope that gets rectified in the future; Neale, Stanescu, and Woodard are exploring something interesting and vast here, and their work deserves a broad and sustained audience.
* I found this personally quite interesting, because the first thing I think of when I hear Polanski's name is the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family, an event that happened in 1969. Is this generational?