Well. After a brief respite being a theatrical performer (Preparations for Departure just closed our 7 show run at Power Plant in Old City), I am back to being a plain old theatrical go-er. As with most post-show experiences, I feel both relief and emptiness at the closing of my show, but I christened my newfound freedom (apparently the sun shines…everyday…hard to tell when you’re spending 15-20 hours in a basement for a week straight) with a trip to see Operetta, the landmark work by Witold Gombrowicz, directed by premier Polish theater director and Swarthmore Alum Michal Zadara, performing just a few blocks from my new place at the Wilma Theater.
I went into the show with zero expectations, which can be either a blessing or a curse in the world of unknown theatrical experiences. I tend to think I’m harder to please if I’m not “looking forward” to a particular aspect of a performance, but it also means it’s harder for me to be caught off guard by what a show “winds up” being. In the case of Operetta, having no expectations was the perfect attitude to have for what wound up being one of the strangest, quirkiest shows I’ve ever seen.
I know – that’s a big statement. I’ve seen a lot of shows in my time (something I say with neither pride nor shame: just fact. As long as I live, I will spend my money seeing theater – something I accepted about myself about 5 years ago). But despite the abundance of theatrical productions on my audience resume, Operetta was something special. “Something else” as my grandfather used to say. The three act, 3.5 hour production was, (I think), ultimately a scathing, parody-filled satire of all things class relations, picking up themes of appearance, politics, performance, reality, and falsehood along the way. Of course, when I say “I think” that’s what Operetta was about, I really mean it. If you told me Operetta was a three and a half hour allegory about the benefits of eating muffins, I’d probably believe that, too. The show was so ridiculous, so unpredictable, that it had a degree of inaccessibility that was striking even to myself, a self-described theater junkie.
To be fair, I knew nothing of Gombrowicz or the play beforehand. A little study might have helped. But let’s face it: sometimes you want to study, other times you just want to be entertained. Bonus if you learn something along the way. And boy, was Operetta entertaining. Because of its length and scope, it seems a bit ridiculous to attempt to describe a “plot” here. As one friend put it “If I’d gone to the show to figure out what it was about, I would have been disappointed.”
I’m not sure when I quite realized Operetta was always going to elude me. Possibly during the opening number – a sort of muzak-esque elevator ode to a man named “Count Charm” who, entering in a full ski suit (the “upper class”, a prominent feature of Operetta, spent the first act lounging around what could only have been a ritzy ski resort), proceeded to croon about his success with women into a microphone provided by a bevy of overall-ed workers while getting repeatedly injected with drugs by his manservant. Or, I might have realized Operetta was its own special something in the second act, when, with no warning, a full-sized camel corpse was dropped from the ceiling, followed by about 10 gallons of sand. (You think that’s crazy – I spent at least 10 seconds convinced it was a REAL camel corpse. Disturbing). By the time the punk rockers rolled out a wooden coffin in the last act, I was almost nonplussed to see the topless woman burst from it and sing a song about her nudity.
Yep, that was Operetta in a nutshell.
Oh, and there was also the fact that, as a Polish transplant, the entire production was performed in Polish with English supertitles.
Sometimes I think this whole genre, which, to an uneducated theater goer feels a whole lot like “art for art’s sake” or “weirdness for weirdnesses sake”, is just a waste of time. Pretentious doesn’t even begin to describe it for me. (Don’t even get me started on Robert Wilson…) I’m almost surprised, then, by how much I enjoyed Operetta. Despite it’s inaccessibility, I wasn’t frustrated watching it. I was always entertained (I laughed out loud a whole lot more than I normally do watching a theater performance), and at times I was even made to think: there were many brilliant, thoughtful, intellectual moments.
Course, I’m trying to remember one of them right now to use as an example and all I can come up with is the hilarity of the “Professor”, who spent most of the play vomiting on his peers.
Why? No idea. But it was freaking funny, I’ll tell you that much.