Versus--In the Jungle of Cities
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
January 9, 2010
Versus is dangerous theatre. Using Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities as a jumping-off point, Teatr Nowy brings a brave, upsetting, and astounding work from Krakow to the Under the Radar Festival. The performance is in Polish, with English titles.
Director Radoslaw Rychcik has created a distinct performative world that I would certainly say fits the categorization "Brechtian." Every scene begins with an announced and projected title. The four actors consistently enter or exit in a line along the same upstage right diagonal. Almost all dialogue takes place with the performers facing out to the audience rather than each other. The action never resembles anything realistic, which I found quite satisfying.
As the audience enters, Natalia Kalita is crouched center stage. There is something immediately vulnerable about her as she looks around the audience, and due to the combination of her being gorgeous, scantily clad, in a strenuous position, and the object of observation, it already feels like she is somehow being exploited. Then the play begins, and the opening speech delivered by Kalita is utterly captivating. Her tense physical journey through reflections on the nature of watching wrestling draws a direct parallel to its content: we relish observing violence. This production gives the audience the satisfaction of an actor's physical strain, but then pushes it beyond what is entertaining and into what is uncomfortable, even nauseating. As Maria, Kalita scrubs the floor to Motown in a repeated pattern to the point of wheezing and collapsing.
Maria is the sister of George Garga, a book clerk. Tomasz Nosinski is demented, twitchy, and totally fascinating in this role. The main action revolves around the competitive relationship between Garga and Shlink, a lumber dealer, played with suave authority by Tomasz Szuchart. The plot development is not a focal point, but rather serves as a foundation expressing the dynamics of exploitation.
Amidst the exploits of the two men, the two women are treated as property. Shlink arrives and immediately takes Jane, Garga's girlfriend, as his own. In one moment Szuchart grabs Anna Gorajska as Jane by the neck and ankle, and she swings from upright to being casually held by him from only those parts. In another scene, Gorajska is blindfolded, naked, and singing. She is sexualized but devoid of identity; totally objectified in her inability to perceive or respond.
Shlink exerts complete dominance over Garga. In a scene entitled "Garga thinks about Shlink," Nosinski just thrashes his body with progressively more violent speed. But, then Shlink gives over his whole business to Garga, asks to be his servant, and allows Garga to marry Jane. Shlink then desires Garga's sister Maria, who Garga swiftly hands over. Before she is stopped and taken by Shlink, Maria begins to slap herself so violently that I cringed for Kalita.
Then comes a scene with Maria and Shlink holding hands while Jane pulls down and pulls back up multiple pairs of underwear. During this dialogue Szuchart looked so ill I thought his eyes would burst. I cannot tell what he was doing or how, but I was revolted by whatever was going on.
Choreographer Dominika Knapik deserves mention for the journeys accomplished by repeating a set of movements at different rates with different energies. A playful hugging match between brother and sister turns into a betrayal. A jealous spat between two women messing each other's clothes turns into a slow sexual undressing. Similar form is executed with tangibly different content in the dances as they progress.
The performers' powerful physical and vocal dedication overrides the disorientation of often poorly aligned supertitles. Doing Brecht using four characters is confusing in the first place. But again, the plot is not the priority here. This production is successful because its four fantastic actors are willing to push their bodies to the brink, as well as their sanity. The whole thing is risky. That's why it is great theatre.
Through detachment and pain it addresses issues of exploitation, including an audience's relationship to watching violence, and our expectations of entertainment. It's frightening to think about the implications of how a little violence is entertaining, but if the violence gets too real or too incessant, it becomes disgusting. Wrestling is entertaining because it's safe in many ways. The parameters are accepted. Certain ways in which we exploit or do violence to others we accept: moderate civilian casualties, paying an illegal immigrant just below minimum wage, a minor increase in yearly violent crimes, limited instances of police brutality, etc. One might say it comes from an attempt to be realistic. This production really forces consideration of when violence changes from acceptable, or entertaining, into unacceptable, and despicable. When do we stop being realistic; stop conceding to the perceived limits of reality? Why aren't we disgusted by all violence and exploitation? I undoubtedly find certain levels of violence entertaining, and I think it's worth thinking about why that is and what type of world it allows.