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From Poland, An Obtuse but Powerful Work

May 20, 2011

Teatr Zar delivers an incomprehensible, beautiful three-part performance on life and death

Sometimes when you go to the theater, you just have to surrender.

As the alternative is to spend an evening in a state of apoplexy and confusion, this is the only possible course of action when encountering a work like “Gospels of Childhood: The Triptych,” a ritualistic, three-part meditation on death and mourning by Poland’s Teatr Zar.

The performance draws on a variety of sources including the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus and the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” But to anyone who isn’t steeped in Slavic languages, early Christian theology and the work of the seminal Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski (Teatr Zar’s main influence), this San Francisco International Arts Festival presentation may be a grueling experience.

There’s little in terms of conventional plot, character and setting to help the audience orient itself during the three-and-a-half-hour performance, which is punctuated by a pair of precipitous ten-minute walks around San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. The rotund St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church houses Acts One and Three and Act Two is performed in the nearby, Julia Morgan-designed Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.

Teatr Zar’s young company members sing most of the text, sourced from the ancient liturgies of a variety of remote, Eastern European and Caucasian orthodox traditions. Half of the remaining dialog is spoken in frenetically paced Polish.

The physical action is similarly obtuse. The actors frequently fling themselves on the ground as if their spines had suddenly turned into melted wax. On the sparse, wooden set littered with a few pieces of decrepit looking furniture, they shovel dirt, spill red wine and move about on all fours under sepulchral lights. Their faces register a wide range of emotions from pain to incomprehension. But they rarely smile.

The whole experience is akin to being thrown blindfolded and handcuffed into a room full of madmen or feverish religious zealots speaking in tongues.

The trick, therefore, to getting the most out of the production is to give up using the eyes to try to make sense of it all and instead allow the performance’s predominantly a cappella vocal score to hijack the senses and induce a trance-like state. Then, the visual elements start to assume vague shapes in the mind’s eye.

The music of “Gospels of Childhood” is by far the most accessible and beautiful aspect of the production.

The score is woven from centuries-old liturgical hymns and chants from Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, the Chechen Republic and other places that Teatr Zar’s company members started researching in 1999. With its unwavering homophonic contours, exposed fifth intervals and plentiful use of microtones, this music requires a challenging combination of supreme technical control, a sense of total ensemble and enraptured emotional abandon to work its magic on the audience.

Teatr Zar’s performers embody the music completely. Balancing perfect intonation and clarity of line with depth of harmony and unfettered passion, they traverse their careening sonic landscape so sublimely that even the most stalwart of atheists cannot help but be transported to a state of quasi-religious euphoria.

Under the hypnotic spell of the singing, “Gospels of Childhood” begins to induce a response that is far removed from the world of empirical thought and analysis. Whatever subtle meanings emerge, do so more through a process of feeling one’s way in the dark for points of warmth and luminosity rather than drawing clear conclusions based on intellectual cues.

Take the production’s portrayal of death, for instance. Tapping into the undulating lines of the music helps one to understand mortality as a constantly shifting state.

In the first act (“Overture. Fragments on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,”) which centers on siblings Marta and Maria mourning the passing of their brother Lazarus, actors light and snuff out candles and put on and remove shirts as if to suggest the intimate and almost interchangeable relationship between life and death.

In the second act, (“Caesarean Section. Essays on Suicide,”) sex and death collide as a female and male duo executes a Tango that, with its jagged steps performed amid shards of broken glass, is as sensual as it is violent.

The idea of transition, of things constantly being in motion, reaches its apotheosis in the final section of the work (“Anhelli. The Calling,”) The movement begins with what resembles a ride across the River of Styx, as cast members make sweeping motions with long wooden poles under a billowing, sail-like canopy. It ends with half of the actors lying inert on stage and the other half, walking off.

There are even moments of black humor that rupture the funereal mood. In the second movement, for instance, an actor tries to hang herself from a potted sapling, absurdly attempting to wait out the decades until the tree grows big enough to act as an effective gallows.

“God created theater for those for whom church does not suffice,” wrote the renowned Polish actor and stage director Juliusz Osterwa. With practice playing successfully before audiences all over the world, Teatr Zar’s theatrical sermon provides a taste of what it means to surrender to a higher power.



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