Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Under the Radar Festival: Versus-In the Jungle of Cities

Photo/Teatr Nowy

Upon the facsimile of a wrestling mat, and before a bright red curtain, a woman stands in a black tank, black panties, and black heels, swaying silently, confidently. Perhaps knowing that this is a Polish adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities explains this; perhaps her supertitled text does. In Versus, four actors will become--as in the Epic Theater--wrestlers, filled with "performative exaggeration," fulfilling the contract the audience secretly holds with them, in that they want not to see actual suffering, but the honest simulacrum of it.

The result of this very physical adaptation is an examination of how we beat ourselves up, both in and out of love, so in that light, it's fair that the audience should itself suffer through "non" mots like these: "After a drink, I will love." Or to a naked, blindfolded woman singing to "Help! Help! Save the perishing love!" But to be fairer, Brecht's tough even in English, and especially so with this show, in which Garga (Tomasz Nosinski) and Szlink (Tomasz Szuchart) face off, more or less, without motive. The successes, then, of Radoslaw Rychcik's adaptation, are in the small moments that transcend the text. For instance, Jane (Anna Gorajska) and Maria (Natalia Kalita), representing all the women of the play, stand in a brothel and attempt to out-do one another, with Dominika Knapik's choreography emphasizing the same event in three different speeds. Or, better, the doomed relationship between Garga and Maria, which starts off with a brash exuberance but--upon each of the three repetitions--grows more and more violent as love turns to disgust to hatred.

Soul music (like "100 Days 100 Nights") is also used for some of the interludes, moments which make explicit what the Teatr Nowy company is after--that inner self. Also, the choice of drawn-out, repeated, or sustained physical actions--the only interruption to text that is otherwise delivered from a straight line, and directly to the audience--emphasizes the different states, from Garga's frenzied finale to, at last, Jane's genuine grief over Szlink's death (she rolls his body across the stage, then over herself). These moments, the best in the play, use the illusion of performance to show things that are not illusions.

Sadly, though the actors are half-naked and fully committed throughout Versus, it's quite hard to follow between the supertitles and the action, especially when there is deliberate contrast between the two. The clear body language of a power struggle--Garga, for instance, grabbing at Szlink, only to slide to the floor, over and over again--can sustain an individual moment, but it is quickly swallowed up by flat text that follows, flying by. It is a battle, in other words, that means nothing, and while that may be true of so many fights, it is ultimately a theatrical let-down.

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