Saturday, October 25, 2008

Made in Poland: The Files

In a pivotal scene from the Academy Award winning The Lives of Others, a famous playwright discovers the extent of the Stasi’s surveillance of his life when he accesses the secret police’s files after the fall of Communism. The members of the Polish avant-garde dramatic company The Theatre of the Eighth Day had a similar experience, but were fully cognizant of the Polish Security Service’s interest in them at the time. In an act of artistic jujitsu, the Eighth Day adapted those bureaucratic reports into a theatrical statement on both their personal histories specifically and the Polish experience under Communism in general. Simply and appropriately titled The Files, it opened in New York last night at the 59E59 Theater as part of the Made in Poland series of contemporary Polish plays.

Founded in 1964, the Eighth Day’s experimental impulse quickly earned the suspicion of the Communist authorities. Ironically, it was the Security Service’s persecution which pushed the group towards risky political work, despite their original intentions. Members of the Eighth Day were under constant surveillance. Their homes were frequently searched and prospective employment was often sabotaged. Periodically, they even faced trumped up misdemeanor criminal charges, all because of the perceived political “hostility” of their productions.

Much of Files resembles a staged reading more than a play, but multimedia projections and vignettes from past Eighth Day productions are also incorporated into the production. However, there is unusual drama in simply watching the four actors as their files are read. Despite their by now intimate familiarity with the contents, one can still see the remnants of dismay at the absurdity of it all, as when Adam Borowski reads from Marcin Kęszycki’s file: “Reason for opening case: Target possesses hostile attitude towards present reality.” Over the course of Files, the sheer pettiness of the Security Service emerges as its dominant characteristic, as when they accuse company members of engaging in “drunken orgies.”

Even when the Eighth Day was not necessarily political, one can see how their improvisational ethos would inspire the wrath of the secret police, especially given the rather far-out nature of some of their collective improvisations, as seen in Files through projected archival film. Any exercise of freedom, including artistic improvisation, becomes a political statement in such a regimented environment. Eventually, Borowski, Kęszycki, and Tadeusz Janiszewski recreate on-stage scenes from Sale for Everyone and Oh, How We Lived in Dignity, which also display a pronounced absurdist tendency in their work. The three men prove quite physical in their interpretations of the material, while the elegant Ewa Wójciak watches in apparent amusement.

After enduing years of harassment, Martial Law, and eventual banishment, the Eighth Day returned home in 1990, assuming a leading role in Polish contemporary drama with topical work like The Time of the Mothers, which addresses the Russian Dirty War in Chechnya, and of course, The Files. Wójciak and Katarzyna Madon-Mitzner have reshaped these cold, stilted historical documents into an unusual, but enlightening theater experience. The Eighth Day resists outright triumphalism in The Files, but still offers a clear measure of inspiration by ascribing their survival to “inner freedom,” as defined by Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. It is a worthy lesson in the true nature of statist government from a singularly distinct company of actors, highly recommended for theater patrons receptive to more thought-provoking fare. It plays a limited run at 59E59 through November 9th, followed by a three night engagement at Indiana University starting on the 13th.