Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Festen: Daddy's Surprise Birthday Present

TR Warszawa's performance of Festen (The Celebration) made me want to revisit the terrific Dogme film it is based on.  Adapted for the stage by Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov, this world-renown Polish theater troupe delves into the murky waters of a family reunion where family secrets spill out in humorous and unsettling ways.

Performed in Polish with English supertitles and directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, Festen is darker than its title suggests with a stronger relationship to Hamlet and Macbeth than Home for the Holidays.  Gathered together for patriarch Helge's (Jan Peszek) birthday, his three living children arrive to the family hotel.  First to arrive is eldest Christian (Andrzej Chyra), who is soft-spoken and beloved by his father.  Second, is the youngest, Michael (Marek Kalita), who is angry and unwelcome with strumpet wife in tow and two unruly children.  Last is Helene (played in the performance I saw by Danuta Stenka-Grzelak) dressed all in leather and a bit of a hellraiser.  Mentions of a recently dead sister, Linda, color the reunion with an emotional black cloud.  Helge appears to be a powerful, rich and prestigious man being celebrated by family and friends.  But when Christian makes his toast to his father the substance of his speech is horror and tragedy even if the tone of his voice remains as it always was--pleasant and unassuming.

Christian's announcement is met with unexpected resistance by the guests and for a moment we are left to wonder about Christian: his motives and the truth.  But like the persistent ghosts that haunt Macbeth, Christian fights on.  With the help of the staff who have long known about his struggles, they conspire to keep the guests trapped at the hotel.  Once Christian has a captive audience, he finds his voice and forces the family to hear him. 

As with any theatrical performance with supertitles, it is a challenge to take in the acting and staging when you are often forced to look in one place for the dialogue.  The play was largely staged in one central area which was helpful but when scenes took place on Stage Left it was hard to focus on the action when the supertitles were Stage Right. 

I enjoyed Andrzej Chyra's performance as Christian.  He brought sympathy and sweetness to a character who must be both adult man and child in his father's presence.  Jan Peszek made Helge severe, stoic, and a frightening presence even if he was not a physically imposing man.  I was less clear about Helene's character and emotional state throughout but that seemed to be a combination of confusing staging, vague writing and frenetic performance.

The adaptation is strongest with the central family story and weakest with the subplots relating to the children's involvement with the staff.  Lack of time to development those plot strands or less specific performances made that aspect of the play less effective.  Was glad to get out of my theatrical comfort zone a bit and take in some truly international theater. 

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