On European Stages, Myths and Memories Merge – The New York Times

Posted By on May 10, 2022

STUTTGART, Germany Perhaps no theater director working today is more haunted by memory than Krzysztof Warlikowski.

To portray its tortuous mechanisms, the Polish Warlikowski favors enigmas and fragmented narratives over straightforward answers. During the past 20 years, this has helped make him one of Europes most acclaimed and distinctive directors. In addition to his productions for the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, which he founded in 2008, Warlikowski also stages works for many of Europes leading drama and opera festivals.

In his latest production, Odyssey. A Story for Hollywood, he takes the viewer on a kaleidoscopic journey from Homer to the Holocaust to Tinseltown, telling the story of a Jewish woman who risks her life during World War II to search for her deported husband. She is portrayed both as a latter-day Odysseus and as Penelope: the wily and weary adventurer in search of his elusive homeland, and the faithful, patient wife tending the hearth.

Loosely inspired by Chasing the King of Hearts, a 2006 novel by the Polish author Hanna Krall, the production is an epic web of associations brought to life on Malgorzata Szczesniaks handsome and versatile set, whose darkly industrial components stand in for interrogation chambers and waiting rooms.

History, mythology and philosophy, and pop and high culture, rub shoulders in a four-hour production that is consistently absorbing even if youre not always sure what it means. (An international coproduction with Nowy Teatr, Odyssey was recently performed at the Schauspiel Stuttgart theater here and will tour to Paris later this month.)

Izolda Regensberg, the protagonist of Kralls short novel, is convinced that her life as a survival artist would make a great Hollywood film. The plays opening scenes, set in war-torn Europe and shortly afterward, show Regensberg navigating a film-noir landscape of violence and menace. A giant cage wheeled repeatedly across the stage heightens the sense of claustrophobia.

From there, were whisked to Los Angeles, where a much older Regensberg is meeting with the director Roman Polanski, the film producer Robert Evans and Elizabeth Taylor, who is set to play Regensberg in a film. The Polish actors perform the scene in English with exaggerated American accents that heighten the vulgarity and ignorance of their backroom talk.

That sendup of Hollywood cluelessness is rebutted by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmanns 1985 documentary, Shoah, a nine-hour oral history of the Holocaust that is a milestone in the history of cinema, to which Warlikowski turns later in the evening. A screen lowers and we watch a famous excerpt from the movie in which Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba, a barber living in Israel who once cut the hair of Jewish women destined for the gas chambers at Treblinka. Bombas wrenching testimony contrasts sharply with a showy test reel we see during Regensbergs meeting with Polanski a spot-on parody of Hollywood Holocaust schlock in which a handsome Gestapo officer tortures and arouses his interrogation victim by playing Wagner on the piano.

In Odyssey, Warlikowski sifts through many of the same tropes as Lanzmanns film, rummaging around in trauma and memory while sifting through the ethical and aesthetic implications of representing the Holocaust. At times, Warlikowskis associative and open-ended approach leads the production in unusual directions and to unexpected places.

At one point, the scene abruptly shifts to the Black Forest in 1950, where Hannah Arendt is picnicking with Martin Heidegger. As the German philosophers (and former lovers) struggle to reconcile Heidegger remains defiant about his support of the Nazi regime a pushy, camera-toting tourist (possibly a visitor from the future) pesters them with questions. The grim trajectory of the play is often speckled with such surreal and humorous details.

For the productions finale, Warlikowski turns to the Coen brothers by faithfully re-creating the prologue to their 2009 film, A Serious Man. In that atmospheric short, a Yiddish horror-comedy sketch seemingly disconnected from the rest of the film, a pious couple in a 19th-century shtetl are visited by a dybbuk (an evil spirit in Jewish folklore) who possesses the body of dead rabbi.

This final scene is a jarring contrast to the Shoah material that directly precedes it and concludes this sprawling production on a curiously muted note. Yet the subject of existential homelessness is the connective tissue that unites Odysseys various strands.

The intersection of personal and communal trauma told through one womans eyes is also the theme of Irina Kastrinidiss dramatic monologue, Schwarzes Meer (Black Sea), whose world premiere at the Landestheater Niedersterreich, in St. Plten, Austria, was directed by the German theater legend Frank Castorf. Its a surprising production, not least because Castorf, whose fame rests on his deconstructive approach to literary classics, is not exactly known for his sensitive portrayals of female protagonists.

In Schwarzes Meer, Kastrinidis, a former actress in Castorfs troupe when he led the Berlin Volksbhne (she is also the directors ex-girlfriend), has fused Greek myths with the history of her more recent ancestors: Pontic Greeks, living in what is now Turkey, who were forcibly expelled in the 1920s. Her monologue a stilted and nonlinear oration in heightened and, at times, archaic language is delivered by the German actress Julia Kreusch, whose physically impassioned immersion in the text seems to elevate it. Kastrinidiss text mixes quotidian, even banal, observations with paeans to the Argonauts and passages in which Penelope seems to fuse with pop icons like Jane Birkin. The expulsion and murder of Kastrinidiss forebears hovers in the background. And as the first-person narration shuttles among Paris, Athens, Berlin and Zurich, Kastrinidis suggests a continuity of exile and inherited trauma and memory that explains her own hallucinogenic sense of homesickness.

Perhaps to safeguard against monotony, Castorf adds two characters who dont appear in Kastrinidiss text, including one played by his 12-year-old son, Mikis Kastrinidis, whose spirited performance alternates between adorable and irritating. Sharing the stage with Kreusch (and occasionally a real goat), he repeatedly reminds the audience that hes acting in his parents play by talking to his mom on the telephone and cracking jokes about how old his dad is.

This chamber staging of a brand-new work is a change of pace for Castorf, who is now 70. His classic productions, tour de force theatrical marathons, took extreme liberties with their source materials and were frequently exhausting for actors and audiences. Kreusch certainly gets a workout in Schwarzes Meer, but, aside from that, there are surprisingly few hallmarks of Castorfs style.

Most surprising, it is, by and large, faithful to Kastrinidiss text, as if the onetime enfant terrible decided it would be inappropriate to impose his ego onto his former lovers personal and poetic cri de coeur.

Like Odyssey, Schwarzes Meer is ultimately an artistic excavation of the theater of memory. In the associative games they play with Greek mythology and modern European history, both of these striking new productions suggest that dislocation and exile are fundamental to the modern human condition.

Odyssey. A Story for Hollywood. Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski. On tour at the Thtre National La Colline, in Paris, May 12-21; Nowy Tear, in Warsaw, June 2-5.Schwarzes Meer. Directed by Frank Castorf. Landestheater Niedersterreich. May 5 and Sept. 24.

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On European Stages, Myths and Memories Merge - The New York Times

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