nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 30, 2008
This is from a report filed with the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs in the 1970s:
There is widely held belief that entire opposition in Poznan consists of Stanislaw Baranczak and handful of young writers, plus ten individuals from Theatre of the Eighth Day, plus about 20 students...
Poznan is a city with half a million inhabitants; the Polish authorities had decided that fewer than 40 of that number constituted the opposition and—here's the significant part—that those 40 needed to be under constant surveillance, watched and sometimes harassed and frequently prevented from leading normal lives...because these 40 writers, actors, and students were doing things that were subversive and dangerous to the state.
We must all be vigilant that such a thing never happens in our own country. The brave and remarkable members of Poland's Theatre of the Eighth Day—visiting New York for the very first time, thanks to the Made in Poland Festival presented by the Polish Cultural Institute at 59E59—are here to remind us why, and to show us how real social change really does start at the grassroots level. The theme of their fascinating play The Files is one of survival against startling odds, but the unstated message is a celebratory one: that sometimes the righteous actually do prevail—or perhaps more to the point, sometimes the sacrifices of political activists really can bring down a repressive regime.
The Files—the most stimulating work of theatre I have had the privilege of seeing in many a moon—is a documentary theatre piece about the real-life experiences of Theatre of the Eighth Day members Ewa Wojciak, Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, and Marcin Keszycki. When they were in college in Poznan they joined this underground theatre troupe, a company specializing in what we'd call performance art—work not always so much political as simply challenging to the status quo. The Files shows us snippets of some of their performances (in live recreations as well as in mostly silent, though enormously compelling, film footage), interwoven with their own reminiscences of that heady time along with excerpts from the transcripts of their official Secret Police files from the same period.
What starts out as an almost absurdist account of institutionalized paranoia and muddleheaded bureaucracy turns deadly serious, as litanies of code names and banal reports from planted spies give way to arrests, violence, and orchestrated proceedings to prevent these young theatre artists from not only making their art but from earning a living.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to know that one of the people I saw every day at work was an informer for the government, watching my every move. The Files, though, has helped me visualize such a seeming impossibility. This is a theatre piece that offers living testimony to something that must never be forgotten, and Wojciak, Borowski, Janiszewski, and Keszycki have my staunchest admiration for so courageously re-living a part of their lives they'd probably very gladly forget about.
Kudos, too, to Katarzyna Madon-Mitzner, who collaborated with Wojciak to adapt the original Secret Police files for the stage; Jacek Chmaj, who has created the simplest of stage designs as a wondrously adaptive frame for this unexpectedly lively, theatrical, and interactive performance; and Bill Johnston, for a translation that feels not only accessible but organic.
Let me close by saying that Wojciak, Borowski, Janiszewski, and Keszycki are superb actors whose warmth, grace, and skill are utterly inspiring; and the show they've created and generously shared with us is wise, humane, and—in spite of its subject—often very funny. The results of tomorrow's election may temper how The Files resonates with audiences later this week, but the craft and passion on view here make this essential theatre-going for those who care about the progress of humankind.