Friday, June 14, 2013

3 Kinds of Exile: 3 Types of Storytelling

John Guare's new play 3 Kinds of Exile is actually three short plays exploring the nuanced and practically unfathomable experience of people living in exile. Two of his three subjects are exiled from Poland. The third is a child growing up in England as a result of the kindertransports while his parents are left behind to die in an unnamed country.

As someone who got a little obsessed with life under and after Communism in Eastern Europe after seeing Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll (let's just say I went so far as to see it in Czech), this was material I was keenly interested in.  Exile is a great subject to explore--the sense of home, the loss of identity, the desire to be somewhere else, the impossibility of return, the betwixt and between of those in exile.  But here, Guare plays around with these issues but it never quite feels like he hits the emotional mark.  The unusual and varied storytelling techniques employed here have their moments but ultimately fail to put these truly interesting tales in the best light.

The three pieces are told in entirely different ways. First, in Karel, Martin Moran performs a monologue, telling the story of his friend in the UK who is plagued by an inexplicable rash--a red menace so to speak. Second, in Elżbieta Erased,  John Guare and Omar Sangare act out the story of Elżbieta Czyżewska and her rise and fall as a leading Polish actress, in a format that is part lecture, part-reenactment, part memoir. Third, in Funiage, David Pittu is a second rate Polish composer who finds himself in farcical musical nightmare and is sent to Argentina to sing the praises of Poland to ex-pats living there.

Martin Moran, a veteran of his own one man shows, does a great job carrying Karel.  A fan of theatrical monologues (Daniel Kitson, Mike Daisey, David Crabb), I found the writing and performance compelling.  Nothing more was needed.  Moran knew exactly how to tell that story--making the character come to life, the setting clear, and the emotion strong.  Ultimately, the success of Karel made the other two stories feel so much more disappointing.

Elżbieta  Erased was the story of Elżbieta Czyżewska.  She was one of the leading figures of the Polish stage and screen in the sixties. She met reporter David Halberstam, who was stationed in Poland for the New York Times, and they married. He was a vocal critic of the communist regime in Poland and eventually he was expelled from Poland. Halberstam and Czyżewska moved to New York. Their marriage fell apart and Czyżewska’s career began to falter.  Perhaps a muse to many, her unusual life story never benefited her any. Never fitting in in America, but being resented in Poland for leaving, she was a woman without a country.

I was completely fascinated by the history, the events, and the character of Elżbieta, but even so, I did not love how they went about telling her story. The character and voice of Elżbieta got completely lost--which to some degree was the theme of her life.  Guare and Sangare would narrate, act out scenes between Czyżewska and others, and often swap characters during the segment. Between Sangare’s accent and Guare and Sangare’s acting choices, I felt everything kept obscuring Czyżewska’s story. Not that egos got in the way (John Guare and Omar Sangare lived parts of this story themselves), but in comparison with Moran’s clear and powerful performance, I kept feeling like this story was suffering from the wrong approach.  I wanted to know this woman.  I learned the facts, and I heard the echoes of her emotional plight, but the story and production did not feel cohesive and in the end I was left a bit cold.

Finally, 3 Kinds of Exile closes with Funiage which was a nutty, and perhaps the most Guarian segment--a bizarre musical nightmare starring David Pittu.  I like Pittu and he does his best with the material, but it felt tangentially connected to the other segments.  As exuberant as it was, I never felt connected to the character or his puzzling journey. 

I received a complimentary ticket to the production.

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