Serenade & Philosopher Fox
nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
February 10, 2005
As Troy Lavallee, dressed as a philosophical “Fox,” began his pleadings to a silent Bishop on a Park Bench, I think I had a flash of the roots of The Zoo Story. Dressed in pelts, covered in dirt, carrying his quarry of a human in a red sack on his back, “Fox” is the murderous and unruly Nature of Man trying to find Meaning in his Existence. He pleads to a member of the establishment, who represents Tradition. He finds, instead of answers, confusion and a deep sense of Loss. Please note the excessive use of capital letters. The Zoo Story has a similar pleading for understanding, a similar park bench, a similar representative of the status quo. It refrains from the capital letters.
East River Commedia has taken two one act parables by Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek, and given them life on the New York stage. They bring to bear excellent stage craft and spirited performances; it’s a disarmingly energetic display. And exposure to a relatively obscure playwright is always a worthwhile expedition for the audience. This one beats us about the head and shoulders with his social satire. Satire isn’t easy to make subtle, of course. Serenade and Philosopher Fox work more often to titillate and rile up the audience than truly challenge them.
Mrozek’s writing is translated, of course, and that can be a balancing act. Anyone that’s tried to make Gogol’s jokes work in English can attest to that. While these short stories seem to fare better in English than Gogol does, there is evidence of overindulgence in the interpretation by Jacek Laskowski. This is especially true in the first play, Serenade, wherein a henhouse is beset by the seductions of the Fox, who uses both song (playfully chosen eighties tunes like “Hungry Eyes”) and a bad-boy style seduction to finally get a bite to eat. In their translation, the word “terrorist” rears its ugly head, and then weighs heavy on the proceedings. Is the hungry Fox adequately deemed a terrorist? Does he have political goals? It seemed out of place to attribute this very loaded term to the Fox… it’s easy enough to call any murderer a terrorist. Harder to justify the comparison, it seems. I’m curious if that word appears in the Polish language version, or if it was simply a provocation for our New York ears.
Essentially, this is the only major gap between the brilliance of the performers and the effectiveness of this performance: the plays are being pushed and pulled to be relevant. The use of the word Terrorist warrants heavy scrutiny in this context. And the Church is far from silent in the United States right now. Begging to hear just one piece of useful meaning from a Bishop starts to feel like begging a timpani drum to play a little bit louder. Director Paul Bargetto’s staging is fine, even inventive; but it’s the plays themselves that get in the way.
Muddled messages notwithstanding, the performances are thrilling. Each actor on the wide stage at Collective Unconscious is wildly energetic, specific, and thrilling to watch work. At the center is Lavallee, who chews the scenery with a mixture of high tension and savoir faire, doled out with perfect balance. Radoslaw Kaim gets quality laughs as he hams it up as Red, a hen-in-drag, and unsettles us with his wicked gyrations as the aptly named Cock. Roy Wasik’s work as the guardian Rooster is entertaining, but he gets the most mileage in a silent turn as The Bishop. Heather Benton (the Brunette) and Michelle Guthrie (the Blonde) hit the right balance of fascination and humor, as Fox pulls them in with his charms.
There are absolutely powerful moments to be found here; bloody as Grimm’s Fairy Tales and human as Albee’s misfits. If the overall evening left me a bit cold, it can only be that the plays themselves didn’t find resonance with me in the way I felt they were intending to. But how ever Serenade and Philosopher Fox fail as political allegory, they work just fine as a showcase for talented performers and a brave new company.