In LA’s small-theater world, one can usually expect timely (or timeless) themes presented by actors intent on demonstrating their acting chops to potential casting directors or other industry types who may be lurking in the dark on any given evening. But with experimental theater, the themes are amorphous, and the acting is often of secondary importance to an elegantly baroque conceptual framework. And so it is with A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique) the latest from the Wooster Group, a New York-based collective for new works of theater, onstage at REDCAT through April 15.
The Adam Mickiewicz Institute (named after Poland’s most prized poet) asked the Wooster Group to compose a piece about Polish artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor, who died in 1990. Best known as an absurdist, Kantor’s heyday was in the 1960s and 70s when he was celebrated for plays such as Dead Class in which Kantor himself played a teacher presiding over a class of superannuated ghosts who are confronted by mannequins representing the characters’ younger selves.
A Pink Chair is divided into five parts plus a prologue, which are announced by number. This helps a bit to keep things loosely organized, but with a mix of video, live acting, singing and near-constant rearranging of the furniture, it does take a lot of concentration to get a grasp on what’s going on. Knowing the background helps.
When Wooster Group Director Elizabeth LeCompte was researching Kantor, she learned that he had a daughter still living, whom she connected with and invited her to work with them on the production. Dorota Kantor Krakowska happened to have video footage from rehearsals from her father’s second-to-last piece, I Shall Never Return (1988). And it is the footage from this play (along with interviews of Dorota) that we see projected onto a screen mid-stage. Meanwhile, the live actors are mimicking much of what is happening in the vintage B&W video, with a puzzled figure bound with tape looking on, a character described as “Man in the Place of Kantor.”
Fragmentary images and characters that relate to Tadeusz Kantor’s life emerge and submerge. We see references to Catholicism, Nazism and Polish national culture. Along the way we also see videos of his daughter’s memories and commentary about him and his work. Eventually, the video screen disappears, and we are hurled into “The Return of Odysseus,” the part of the Odysseus story where the King returns from many years away disguised as a beggar to find his wife, Penelope, besieged by suitors seeking to replace him. This is actually another segment from Kantor’s I Shall Never Return. These enigmatic lines from that play form the touchstone of the performance:
In a moment I will enter with my “luggage”
a shabby and suspicious
I have traveled to it for a long time.
I have traveled here to meet,
I am not sure what, with apparitions or people.
To say I’ve been creating them
for many many years
would be an overstatement.
Like an Expressionist painting, in which time and space overlap and intermingle, the overall effect is dreamlike, with a distinctly European feel. And toward the end when the ensemble begins singing Catholic, Jewish and Protestant hymns, there is a sense of resolution or happiness or even joy. Who is this hero coming back home? Is it Kantor returning to Poland after years being away? Or is it a foreshadowing of his own impending mortality where he will shuffle off the mortal coil and enter a new kingdom of heaven where all past turmoil will fall away? Or something else entirely? All is possible in experimental theater like this.
There are not very many places to see such theater. In New York, there is the venerable La Mama Theater (where I Shall Never Return made its U.S. debut in 1979). Here in Los Angeles, we have the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, our own quasi-subterranean space underneath Disney Hall where original thinkers are always welcome. You may leave puzzled or even frustrated, but you will not be bored.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA