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Dorothy Chansky

Two at the National Stary Theatre

Stary Theatre of Krakow
1 Jagiellonska Street
Krakow, Poland
Scheduled in rep
Phone: +48 12 122 90 80
Box office open Tuesday – Saturday 11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Paulina Kondrak as Malwa in the Stary Theatre production of "Tale of the Snake's Heart"

When I first saw work by the Stary Theatre (in the U.S.), decades ago, I understood “Stary” as “starry” (that’s roughly how it’s pronounced)—full of talent and reputation and an overall big deal, which it is. But “Stary,” as I learned the last time I visited the theatre, which was in 2019, means “old,” and this is one of the oldest public stages in Poland, with humble origins in 1791. The present-day primary venue (the company has two buildings in two different locations), was constructed between 1903 and 1906. Its grand stairway boasts a huge oil painting of superstar Helena Modrzejewska (a renowned classical actress known as Modjeska in the United States, where she immigrated in 1876), after whom the building is named. Other luminaries who have worked there include Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski.

The theatre is known for innovative takes on classics, whether these sources are scripts or legends. Arresting staging and incisive acting are the company’s default setting. Whether or not a given piece has English supertitles (one of the two I saw did; the other did not), audiences can expect to be riveted by performances that are always intense but never over the top and by design and stage pictures that make you look twice, if not three or four times for their details and communicative power.

“Tale of the Snake’s Heart,” based on the novel of the same title by Radek Rak, intertwines Jewish folklore, actual history, and the efforts of a fictional troupe of traveling actors trying to tell a story that is both a fairy tale and meant as a possible societal corrective. The folkore says that every night the world is taken apart and then put back together the next day by a demiurge who sometimes makes mistakes. (Some assembly required, but no instructions included.) The history is that of Jacób Szela, a peasant in Galicia (present-day southeast Poland) who led a bloody uprising against the gentry in 1846, destroying manors, nobility, and many of his fellow serfs. The actors, who step in and out of the roles in the story they tell, almost become like seven characters in search of an author, as their tale makes clear that neither enduring abuse nor wielding unquestioned power is the way to repair the world. But will cautionary tales make a difference? Will the players ever be able to stop telling this story?

Jacób (Lukasz Szczepanowski), our peasant hero, is repeatedly taunted with the word “oaf,” and otherwise scorned, mocked, and also whipped by Wiktoryn (Lukasz Stawarczyk), the lord on whose land he works. He is also teased and insulted by a flirtatious woman, Malwa (Paulina Kondrak), who is simultaneously Eve and Snake—temptress and despoiler. Early in the piece, the actors in their role as storytellers assert that the worst thing a person can do is squander their heart, as this will leave a hole in the universe when the spirits put it back together. Both Jacób, owing to a lifetime of abuse, and Wiktoryn, owing to a lifetime of power and indolence, have basically squandered theirs, each in his own way, so even when each gets a taste of the world from the other’s perspective, both remain cruel and vindictive. A woman labeled a witch (Beata Paluch) befriends Jacób in his wanderings and knows instantly that he has no heart. She chides him, however, noting that he was not born heartless but gave his away. The church, in the forms of a pious but useless old believer (Grzegorz Mielczarek) and a now-dissipated and homeless former monk (Zbigniew W. Kaleta), is no help, and women are subject to the abuse or protection meted out by their heartless men. (Magdalena Graziowska’s Chana genuinely loves Jacób but, for her troubles, is left to die in a ditch. So much for male-controlled church and state.)

Director Benjamin M. Bukowski, who devised the text with Amadeusz Nosal, preserves the idea of the tight-knit traveling troupe by keeping almost all seven actors onstage almost all the time in the Stary’s downstairs, small theatre. (If it were not a proscenium, I might call it their black box.) The troupe members (and the Stary cast) are there to tell a cautionary tale, not to attempt naturalism. Julia Ulman’s costumes feature stretchy fabric with a snakeskin pattern on some part of the bodies of all the players. Temptress Malwa is fully clad in a faux snakeskin body leotard, but for Lord Wiktoryn, for instance, it is a sort of clingy long-sleeved tee shirt that he removes at one point, but that goes back on, as the character is unable to shed his true, slithering essence.

“The Constant Prince,” using an 1843 Polish translation/adaptation by Juliusz Slowacki of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 1629 Spanish original, is a story of patriotism, religious devotion, and sacrifice. Like “Tale of the Snake’s Heart,” this play is based loosely on the once-popular story of an actual historic figure. Prince Ferdinand of Portugal chose (according to legend) to die in prison in 1443 rather than allow the city of Ceuta, on the northern coast of Africa, to fall into Muslim hands. Don’t pay the ransom; let me die here and keep the conquest in the name of Jesus and Portugal. Or something like that.

In director Malgozata Warsicka’s hands, our sympathies are divided between the Muslim characters, whom we meet first, and the Portuguese Christians, who arrive as invaders but have what they regard as a noble purpose. Designer Katarzyna Borkowska has the stage covered in what initially appears to be a rich crimson carpet but soon reveals itself to be red dirt. Asleep on the ground as the play starts are Muslim warrior Muley, played with power, integrity, and sexiness by Blazej Peszek, and his beloved Fenix (the charming but also fierce Natalia Kaja Chmielewska), the latter soon to be royally pissed off by the hidebound and religious King of Fez (Edward Linde-Lubaszenko), who has promised her to another man in the interest of forging a political alliance via marriage. Instead, she and Muley retreat to some big pillows and hookah on a rug and continue to embrace. Surely these are our hero and heroine.

But no. Emerging from a spaceship-like item upstage—it’s shaped like a loudspeaker turned on its side—is Ferdinand (Maciej Charyton), the titular royal of constancy, brimming with youth, energy, and a sense of mission, followed by his two brothers. Historically, the actual princes were earning their spurs, so to speak, and staking a claim for their father’s kingdom. Here, the first of Ferdinand’s brothers sports not one, but two crucifixes around his neck. The second, clearly seeing this invasion as a kind of lark, emerges from the hulking, boxy capsule in a tank top with a tube of sunscreen. Hey, Tangier. Surely we’re here for fun in the sun, as the “infidels” are certain to capitulate fast, right?

No, again. Battles ensue with wind machines, and a niftily theatrical killing field created by actors and a small singing chorus who all fall repeatedly and are murdered one by one by a Portuguese soldier wielding what looks like a portable tank, hose, and nozzle for spraying insecticide. Each zap leaves a red mark on the victim’s forehead and another body in the dust—or red dirt. (Shades of Javier Bardem’s character in “No Country for Old Men.”) The theatre is filled with the smell of incense for most of the performance, a constant reminder that this is “the orient” but also that the world of the “enemy” cannot be neatly eradicated by arrogance, weaponry, and self-righteousness. Wishing just doesn’t make it so. Scents, like cultures, don’t evaporate on demand.

By the second half of the evening, Ferdinand has gone from self-possessed and agile to wispy and weak, languishing in prison after he is captured by Muley and company. The wholly impotent and immobilized King of Fez sits in a kind of stupor on an overstuffed Victorian sofa. No one really seems to win.

An evocative soundscape is provided by a chorus of six singers and two instrumentalists—a drummer and a lute player. Music is, by turns, otherworldly and decidedly Middle Eastern.

Program notes remind us that wars for religious belief and identity (Ferdinand is described as “a Catholic fanatic”) nowadays strike us as odd. Yet enlisting as a soldier to protect a homeland remains heroic. Ukraine or Israel, anyone? Ferdinand’s capture was made possible, however, because he and Muley had previously met in battle and Ferdinand, when he had the upper hand, allowed Muley to go free to return to his beloved. Is there honor among thieves? Is war a losing game no matter who is playing? Are these even the right questions to be asking?

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