Wodzirej (Top Dog), directed by Remigiusz Brzyk, inaugurates a new project at Imka Theatre titled “Projekt PRL”. The series, whose title is a reference to the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), will also feature a play inspired by the life of Wojciech Jaruzelski, Generał (The General), written by Jarosław Jakubowski and directed by Aleksandra Popławska with Marek Kalita (premiering in April), and Polak w kosmosie (A Pole in Space), by Michał Walczak and directed by Łukasz Kos, with Tomasz Karolak in the role of Mirosław Hermaszewski, the first (and thus far only) Pole in space (premiering in July).
The project comes as part of recent wave of Polish interest in the country’s previous system. Poles have shown renewed interest in the People’s Republic of Poland, collecting gadgets associated with the past era and appreciating the architecture of the period (in some cases belatedly, as with Warsaw’s Supersam grocery store). Post-war design is once again become popular, as exemplified by the National Museum’s currently running “We want to be modern” exhibition, featuring applied art and graphic design from the 1950s and 1960s. Books are being published that present the era in a different light than before, emphasising continuity rather than a historic divide and exploring other themes than the binary opposition of subjugation and freedom, communist poverty and free-market wealth. In a word: no longer is the country’s communist past a source of shame or cause for denial. It has become an important element of the Polish identity. The project by Imka Theatre embraces this “cult” approach to the PRL and attempts to pose serious questions about the tradition.
Director Remigiusz Brzyk and dramaturge Tomasz Śpiewak start the series off ambitiously with their rendition of Feliks Falk’s 1977 film Wodzirej, one of the most important and controversial examples of Poland’s “cinema of moral concern”. The choice of script is both the strongest and weakest point in the play. After all, why not tell the story of the PRL using the made-for-theatre work of Mrożek or Różewicz (or a combination of the two, as Paweł Miśkiewicz did with his 2001 play Rajski ogródek)? If I understand the creators’ intentions, the choice of script is a conscious reference to the art of the cinema; most Poles, after all, remember the era through films such as those by Bareja, Wajda, Zanussi, and Falka, as well as TV shows such as Wojna domowa (the ‘60s) and Czterdziestolatek (the ‘70s). The cliché enables the artists to enter into a game with both the audience’s memories and the film. One drawback of the approach is that a comparison with the original cannot be avoided, especially with regards to Jerzy Stuhr’s inspired role. But let’s take things one at a time.
Brzyk and Śpiewak’s idea involves a juxtaposition of Falk’s screenplay with the ubiquitous self-help guides written by American and – with growing frequency – Polish authors. In this sequel to Wodzirej, Lutek Danielak struggles to supervise the opening of a new mall (referred to as “Moloch”), and pumps himself up by reading and listening to the wisdom contained in one such guide: how to set goals, how to achieve goals, how to rewrite your life script, how to go from loser to winner. The creators certainly succeed, in ridiculing the idiocy spewed by such writers, often by employing witty theatrical solutions. Doubts, supposed problems that need quelling, are presented as white bunnies hopping about the stage. The animals return as Lutek performs sexual favors for Mela in exchange for valuable information.
But to be entirely honest, this self-help wisdom succeeds in debunking itself. Falk’s film went beyond a mere portrayal of the social mechanisms that corrupt individual members of a system in which decisions are made in an opaque fashion by who knows whom. It was an analysis of evil as a metaphysical force that sets down roots in Lutek’s soul and corrupts him from within, destroying all of his relationships with his loved ones. While Lutek’s first steps appear rather innocent, it quickly turns out that he has passed the point of no return. Falk’s screenplay gave Stuhr an opportunity to build an exceptional character, a provincial Sologubian “petty demon”.
Brzyk and Śpiewak’s script offers no such opportunity to actor Wojciech Błach. In a world ruled by glossy magazines and mass-market self-help guides, there is no such thing as evil, and there is no room for metaphysics. There is only success, colourful clothing, and parties – or failure and banishment from the media. Importantly, Błacha’s character Danielak starts off at a different point than Lutek. The latter appears to be quite a successful figure in the communist world of entertainment (as much as we may mock his performances with a fakir and topless dancer), he knows how to get around, which doors to open, and he knows what he wants. He is in charge of his life, while Danielak is apparently destined to be a loser, as everything he does would be considered cheap and embarrassing by our standards. The chasm separating him from Myśliwiec and Mayer, and even his colorfully dressed photographer friend Tomek, seem insurmountable. As a character controlled by external forces (in a way that is characteristic of our times), Danielak requires a script written by someone else. It is given to him by a serendipitously encountered celebrity wearing a mask and parrot costume, and takes the form of a red book, from which Lutek reads his magic mantras about success. The wisdom in the book fails to help him, and Lutek performs this script as a loser, paying the price up front. The event is canceled.
The play’s weak points are a result of the weakness of the copied text. The fragments quoted extensively are too long and cease to be funny after a while, interrupting the rhythm of the play and keeping the actors from truly shining. Aside from Wojciech Błacha, notable roles include Magdalena Boczarska as Lutek’s girlfriend and Sebastian Pawlak, who plays – among other roles – a friend of Tomek’s, a perfect portrait of the type people found in his line of work. Anna Maria Kaczmarska makes excellent use of space, building a frugal and functional set out of simple items, plastic crates, and a plastic tarp that adds an interesting dimension to the convention of the fourth wall.
Despite some drawbacks, the play appears to be an interesting attempt on the part of the forty-something generation to confront the heritage of the PRL. I look forward to future installations of the series.