I’m lucky enough to live in a city with a wide array of theatrical performances. Wicked is still playing at the Orpheum and the Curran theater housed The Book of Mormon last fall. The A.C.T. puts on smaller but notable productions. Yet I have to say that maybe the most exciting theater experiences happen in the most obscure, least known playhouses. Perhaps because the smallest companies take the biggest risks.
I have seen some bad theater here, sure, and some plays are mediocre at best. I’m usually content with going to the theater even if the play itself is so-so. It is something to do and talk about that is out of the usual dinner date or brunch with friends routine. Last year I went to see a Sam Shepard play to support a colleague who was in it. I can’t remember the name of the play, nor do I remember the name of the theater, which says something. The play was weird at best. Meeting my friend and colleague after the play to congratulate him on his performance went something like this:
“That was crazy when you stuck your hand down her mouth to get her to stop talking and kept it there while you shouted your entire monologue at a complete stranger.”
“So….did the mom really have an affair with her son and bury the baby in the backyard?”
“That’s how we interpreted the play.”
I wouldn’t say the play was an enjoyable experience. It had nothing to do with the acting (which was in fact superb). The play itself is unsettling, and to be honest, confusing. I found it difficult to unpack and sift through the ambiguity. Sometimes good acting isn’t enough.
Earlier this week, I received an email informing me that another colleague, Tonyanna Borkovi, would be playing a lead role in a brand new play with a brand new theater company. The play, Princess Ivona, is by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. Gombrowicz was writing in the absurdist style before the actual movement picked up in the 1950s and 1960s. The play was published in the late 1930s, yet the fast arrival of WWII swept away the memory of the play and it didn’t surface to be performed on stage until the 1960s in Europe. Since then, the play has been quite successful in Europe, and Gombrowicz has built up a respectable cult following. For whatever reason, Gombrowicz has never really broken into the American theater scene. My guess is because Polish theater isn’t big here, nor are playwrights who tend to lie outside the margins of well-established movements like absurdist theater.
Our experience was so thought provoking that Nathan and I talked about Princess Ivona until we fell asleep last night. The play permeated my dreams and the first words we said to one another when we woke up were, “The prince was amazing. So was Ivona. So was the advisor. So was the queen. And the king! What about Checkers?? So funny!”
Now, I loved The Book of Mormon. But I expected to love it and I wasn’t disappointed. I walked into the theater last night, not knowing what to anticipate because I’ve never even heard of the play or its writer before and I was on my toes the entire time. I’m not some super nerdy academic (although I sometimes play that role too). I have a range of taste in theater from Broadway to some side street in the SOMA. This play stands out amongst my theater experiences, however. It was so unique, so unexpectedly wonderful and I mean that in the sense that it was “full of wonder.” I was on a journey without knowing where I was going and soaking up every masterful minute. From the acting, to the storyline, to the costumes, set and staging – everything fit, everything contributed so richly to the complex and entertaining framework of this play. It is, quite simply, the best play I have ever seen.
What a play to open a new theater company with! The Collected Works, I have my eye on you! Can’t wait to see what you put on next. And Gombrowicz, we’re already ordering everything you’ve ever written.
Brief description of play (added as an afterthought):
I almost don’t want to describe the play because it’s surprising elements are so delightful. But I suppose I can give some sense of storyline and a few highlights. The play actually takes place in two different parts of the theater. Act 1 occurs at the entrance of the theater, around a fountain and by the bar. The play follows a bored prince who becomes obsessed with the arrival of a new woman at court, Ivona. The mingling with the audience in Act 1 adds to the impression that we’re all part of the court, following the words and actions of the royal family like the other characters in the play. We follow the Prince, Ivona, the king, queen and their attendants into the main part of the theater, staged as the prince’s bedroom, for the rest of the play. The prince’s fascination around Ivona surrounds her muteness. Why won’t she speak? Why is she so apathetic? The prince’s obsession becomes contagious and soon the whole court is driven mad by the enigma of Princess Ivona. The line between spectator and participant are amusingly blurred in the play. While in the prince’s bedroom, the whole audience covers up with blankets, which were placed on every seat in the theater. Blankets + Entertainment on a cold SF night = GENIUS!!