nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
October 15, 2005
There is much said about the sacredness of the theatrical event and its similarity to a religious ritual. Few productions come close to realizing this sacredness, but the Wierszalin Theatre of Poland’s new production of Saint Oedipus, written and directed by Piotr Tomaszuk, is a reminder of the primal power that an evening in the theatre can possess. It is one of the most essential theatre works to premiere in New York over the last several seasons, and if you miss it, it will be your loss.
Tomaszuk bases his interpretation of the Oedipus myth on a medieval version of the story, filling this out with references to the original Sophoclean play, the book of Psalms, Kleist’s theory of marionette theatre, and Thomas Mann’s novels Doctor Faustus and The Holy Sinner, but in truth it’s entirely a sui generic reflection on sin, sexuality, and the soul’s entrapment in the body. Eva Farkasova’s organic costumes of plain linen, black leather, and sweeping robes (with a touch of the darker, disturbing primal atmospheres exemplified in Terry Gilliam’s more medieval moments) sweep all time into our time; Jano Zavarsky’s deep, spare set is an evocation of medieval elementalism: ragged drapes and straw curtains sweep across the set creating several playing areas; a Plexiglas mirror upstage, tilted precariously, poeticizes the space in a lyrical repetition of stage images. Across this set, Rafal Gasowski and Edyta Lukaszewicz-Lisowska revive not only the ancient story of Oedipus, but also the various means by which guilt, sexuality, and bodily experience are expressed, punished and repressed.
Tomaszuk’s script is not so much a play as a liturgy. As such, it’s comprised of repetitive images and phrases (“As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be”; “The body is a trap”) that serve to annotate the story of Jocasta and Oedipus, as they attempt to expiate the original sin of the body’s entrapment of the soul. As son and mother, brother and sister, husband and wife, they exemplify all man-woman relationships; the guilt and terror accompanying sexual pleasure is demonstrated through a variety of images, from sadomasochistic costumes and practices to blood sacrifices. There is a beautiful, pure moment of physical calm and release in copulation here, bare bodies, having been self-anointed in a cleansing blue water that washes the blood from their hands, achieving graceful orgasmic precision; however, the pain of the play soon returns as Jocasta recognizes Oedipus as her son—as a bodied individual—in a moment of post-coital epiphany.
Rafal Gasowski is a haunted and haunting figure through the play, as he begins the play in the role of Mann’s demonic composer Adrian Leverkuhn, who introduces the idea of marionettes as the only truly free humanoid beings, then sidles into the character of Oedipus himself. Edyta Lukaszewicz-Lisowska is similarly extraordinary and chameleon-like as she courses through characters, including a midwife and a cardinal, during the performance. It must additionally be said that these hypnotizing, physically disciplined, and quite beautiful performers bring an emotional intensity to the evening it has rarely been my privilege to experience; at the curtain call, both Gasowski and Lukaszewicz-Lisowska seem more stunned than anything else, and looking these performers in the eye as they look at you, having experienced this ritual with them, is a profoundly disturbing moment indeed. The curtain doesn’t call for applause, but for awed silence.
And it’s disturbing because, like all good theatre and effective religious ritual, it poses a mystery at the center of human experience, a mystery beyond words or explication that can only be expressed through the body. Somehow the Oedipus myth has remained with us as a reminder of our ambivalent sexuality down through the last three millennia; Saint Oedipus does not condescend to try to explain it to us, but dares instead to invite us to experience this mystery with the performers, the celebrants of this secular communion, as they trace it from the Old Testament to our own time. If you are emotionally open enough to enter into this mystery with them, Saint Oedipus is one of the most powerful theatrical events of the season, if not the last several years. You will leave shaken and stunned, if not entirely purged of the elemental terror the Wierszalin Theatre’s play expresses.
Piotr Nazaruk’s music is a mosaic of rock-and-roll, spare percussive arrhythmic underscores, and quotes from Mozart’s Requiem: a musical accompaniment, appropriately atmospheric and hypnotizing itself, of this unique mass.
(Note: The text of the play itself is a simple, rhythmic English, but the ten-minute-long prologue is in Polish; a translation is provided in the program.)