Downstage-right on Malgorzata Szczesniak’s marvelous set–which has all the tyrannical lines of a de Chirico painting, without the calming perspective shifts–sits a large, claw-foot bathtub surrounded by a translucent white shower curtain that extends all the way up to the rigging. During the suggestive moments of Festen that play out in this space, it’s lit from directly above, creating a sort of ghostly silhouette of the performer. And indeed, in this very tub, it’s revealed, a woman recently committed suicide. So the suggestion of the supernatural is intended. It’s a pregnant image, employed variously throughout the production, and–if you haven’t seen the film the play is based on–you find yourself expecting again and again for a ghost to emerge. Which seems to happen more than once. Except, it doesn’t. There are no ghosts (other than the metaphorical sort) in this play. Rather, in a clever bit of stage-magic, the presentation contorts itself into something that appears to be surreal only to reveal that really, it’s all a matter of realism and convention (how else, after all, do you light a closed bathtub?).
It’s really a perfect metaphor for what makes Festen, from TR Warszawa, one of Poland’s top contemporary theaters (playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse through April 29; tickets $55-$75) so compelling: Everything that you see onstage is, indeed, happening within the action. This is a completely realist play, and no matter how odd–a roomful of people nonchalantly ignoring gross accusations, people circling one another on all-fours like dogs preparing to mate–it is in fact happening. There’s no broad, un-realistic theatrical metaphor. It’s just so odd that, within the play, you are at first tempted to assume that the production is using broad metaphor rather than verisimilitude. But that very ambiguity is itself a metaphor for the central drama of the action: A father, on his sixtieth birthday, is confronted by one of his children (the twin of a sister who committed suicide in the wake of years of abuse) with his past as a child molester. No one believes the son, Christian (Andrzej Chyra), of course, and choose simply to ignore his outburst (delivered as a part of anecdotal toast). Which, upon reflection, isn’t a particularly unbelievable response (witness 50 years of child abuse known and tolerated by the Catholic church). It’s a trick as old as A Turn of the Screw.
All of which is actually quite fitting, given Festen‘s provenance being the first film produced under the tenets of Dogme 95, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s (the latter of whom directed Festen) anti-Hollywood manifesto. By rejecting the stylistics of post-production, soundtrack, and special effects in favor of just what you can capture live on camera, the movement at first blush suggests a return to grounded realism. Except that, of course, someone like Von Trier is hardly interested in social realism for its own sake. Instead, the rejection of the sorts of techniques filmmaking traditionally uses to create the world of its action forced filmmakers to re-orient themselves toward the actor and expose the convention–the sort of technique Von Trier would later employ in works like Dogville (the 151st Dogme 95 film). The what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to filmmaking wasn’t ultimately a rejection of film’s ability to create larger, more abstract metaphorical effects, but rather a way of re-focusing the creators on the means by which they create them.
The story and characters in Festen are extremely conventional, even predictable. A family is gathering for dad’s birthday at the hotel that is the source of the family’s wealth. As the play opens, Christian, now a chef but shockingly passive and emotionally distant, dressed in a dapper dark suit, is directing the staff in the preparations as his youngest sibling Michael (Marek Kalita) lounges about. Michael is a classical ne’er-do-well, dressed in loud clothes painfully out of keeping with the atmosphere, and is something of a loser in desperate need of money. He and his wife Mette (Agnieszka Podsiadlik)–equally tacky and déclassé–coasted in on fumes with their two children, and can’t even afford gas to leave. His father’s indulgence in his ongoing excesses ensures Michael’s support throughout. Michael and Christian’s sister Helene (Danuta Stenka) is a classically rebellious daughter, who’s strayed far from the family’s expectations (studying anthropology, rather than pursuing the service industry as the dutiful Michael has) and who serially dates black men to provoke her family. One of the few outright bits of comedy in the show is her boyfriend Gbatokai (Carlos Ferreira), a terribly handsome man (the last scene features him wandering about shirtless, to the endless fascination of the women), who, though subjected to endless racial taunts, is the moral center of the play, the only truly good and untainted character. The plot turns on the revelations within Michael’s twin sister’s suicide note, hidden in a room and uncovered by Helene through the mechanism of a shared childhood game.
Director Grzegorz Jarzyna, one of the most respected younger artists in Poland (he’s the artistic director of TR Warszawa, which has long presented the work of René Pollesch), rather brilliantly translates to the stage in his play of Festen. Jarzyna doesn’t reject the language of the stage as Dogme 95 did film, but he certainly plays against type: Polish theater in particular is marked by a directorial willingness to engage in big metaphor. Audiences enter the theater with the expectation of seeing something that takes as its mandate something bigger than an attempt to realistically translate a story onto the story. But in Festen, the very convention of this sort of theater is twisted around to surprise the audience’s expectations. When Christian accuses his father publicly of molesting him, and he’s ignored, we wonder what we’re supposed to make of it. Was it imaginary? Was this what Christian wanted to do but didn’t? Or if not, is the rest of the dinner party’s willingness to directly ignore his statement a broad theatrical metaphor for society’s unwillingness to grapple with child abuse? The answer is of course neither.
Shortly thereafter (but long enough to keep the audience wondering if the other guests actually heard what Christian said, and questioning whether the world onstage is symbolic or realist), the mother, Else (played with empathetic dignity by Ewa Dalkowska) rises to give another toast, in which she gently recalls Christian’s history of emotional instability and “fabrications,” and chastises him not to keep “making up” stories. Now the audience can read the nonplussed response to Christian’s allegations a different way: Is he insane, a serial fabricator? Perhaps everyone just expects these sorts of outbursts?
The terrible truth, though, is that everyone in the room has actually just reacted the exact same way Else herself did when, years before, she walked in on her husband Helge (Jan Peszek, who has the charisma and looks of a slightly younger Silvio Berlusconi, without the hints of trashy excess) raping her children: they simply ignore it.
For the audience, Festen presents a growing challenge as it unfolds in an increasingly boozy, fantastical fashion. Namely, the audience is continually surprised to discover that no matter how unrealistic what they’re seeing onstage is, it is, in fact, the result of a sort of cognitive dissonance produced by the sheer shock of child molestation. It may seem surreal that a group of people would simply ignore the accusation of rape by a beloved family member, but it’s in fact sadly quite real. How else to explain the actions of someone like Mike McQueary, the Penn State football intern who walked in on Jerry Sandusky raping a child in the shower, and only reported it the next day–and even then not to the police.
Jarzyna’s brilliance as a director is in translating the original film’s play against our expectations–that the reality is so contrary to our expectations of our own, and thereby others,’ behavior–into the language of the stage, where any semblance of Dogme 95′s WYSIWYG filmmaking is impossible given the facticity of the theater itself. Suggestive imagery (like the bathtub/ghost provocation) are revealed to be nothing more than the result of standard theatrical practice. In a winking nod, no doubt, to Dogme 95′s prohibition against non-diegetic music (which the original film respected), the play features both incidental live music as well as a soundtrack over the PA. He invites us into a world of broad theatrical metaphor only to reveal its similarity to our own depressing reality, the aesthetic of metaphorical language collapsing into a shocking and deranging realism.
My guest and I left the theater for intermission profoundly shaken and surprised, she perhaps more than I (she’d never seen the film; I couldn’t remember it) because she’d spent the day watching gritty realist films of, er, child molestation and other similar crime at a festival. (The intermission comes extraordinarily late in the evening, two hours in, after the climax, and simply sets up the denouement; there’s perhaps 15 minutes of action left upon re-entering.) Festen is not an easy play to experience, but it is a moving one. By the next morning, the initial shock of my own implication in questioning the accusation of child sex abuse gave way to the sense of relief to have experienced a truly solid piece of theater. Jarzyna’s work is top-notch, no caveats attached. This is a phenomenal play–not aesthetically revolutionary, perhaps, but benchmark-worthy–that should not be missed.