Dec 092011

The principal actors do a bangup job of adding wit, personal trauma, and wild eccentricity to the action, particularly John Stange as the wildly mood-swinging Walpurg and David Berkenbilt as a crackpot analyst-shrink—clearly a dig at the sex-obsessed world of Sigmund Freud. The supporting cast, including Ray Converse, Jen Bevan, and James Randle, add sinister helping hands as well…it’s loaded with crazy, imaginative touches, including the weirdly effective costuming designed by Jen Bevan. Sister Anna’s sexy pink habit is a nice touch as is the overly ornate habit of Anna’s superior, the very weird and ultra-cranky Mother Superior, Sister Barbara (Mary Suib). Barbara’s pancake makeup and huge, fluttering fake eyelids make this character even funnier.

But perhaps the biggest hat tip of all goes to director Hanna Bondarewska. Working with scholars to establish a faithful, working English translation of this Polish play, and helping her players get into their characters and navigate Witkacy’s intriguing, multi-layered, glorious mess of a play, she brings a long-neglected playwright vividly back to life, exploring once again his oddly forward looking views on life, reality, art, and—for better or worse—the role of mind-altering substances in transporting an artist to other realms where creativity may somehow be more highly regarded as a glimpse of the divine.

For Witkacy, it seems, life might ultimately be summed up in the words of an American uppercase-challenged poet e. e. cummings, who later wrote:

listen; there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go

Ambassador Theater’s production of The Madman and the Nun runs thru Dec 18, 2011 at Flashpoint Gallery, Mead Theatre Lab, 918 G Street NW, Washington, DC. BY Terry Ponick

Dec 052011

Madness: For Witkiewicz, the play’s the thing

Photo: Gediyon Kifle

Sunday, December 4, 2011 - Not What You Expect with Mary L. Tabor by Mary Tabor

WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2011 — The artist is mad, insane, suicidal. In The Madman and the      Nun, a play set entirely in a lunatic asylum, we meet poet Alexander Walpurg, who’s diagnosed with “acute   dementia praecox” and bound by a straitjacket.

Theater goers, confined with him for 65 fast-moving minutes, are in for a hilarious romp as they are drawn into Walpurg’s profound commentary on creativity and madness.

Polish absurdist playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), who himself committed suicide in 1939 at age 54, wrote this surreal, engaging, erotic and biting satire of psychoanalysis and the perils of the artist in 1923.

Hanna Bondarewska and the cast of 'Madman.' Photo credits: Dediyon  Kifle.

Director Hanna Bondarewska has created a spirited update of the play. The  patient’s file is handed to the viewer on entering, and it conveniently  functions as the drama’s program notes. Two live computer  screens illuminate the action on stage, transmitting real time images of the  poet Walpurg. A brand new app for the iPad is unveiled when the trendy device becomes a weapon that’s used to beat our anti-hero.

Bondarewska brings this play to a close, gloriously, lightly, and ingeniously by deploying the song “Chapel of love” and blending it into Witkacy’s surreally happy ending. This and other theatrical touches have earned for Bondarewska the attention of the current batch of literary scholars who are now giving Witkacy his belated due.

After she performed a staged reading of Witkacy’s Country House, she says, “I got phone calls from Professors Daniel Gerould and Mark Rudnicki,” experts on the playwright’s work which also includes an extensive portfolio of paintings. As a result of these conversations, “They asked me to perform at their conference last year.” That formed the seed of this new production that inspired Gerould to journey to DC to see. Clearly, Bondarewska has earned his attention, and she deserves ours as well.

Madman Walpurg (John Stange) and Nun, Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan), up close and personal.

In The Madman and the Nun, Bondarewska has brought to the fore the dangers facing the creative soul, which she describes as “misunderstanding and vulnerability.”

In Madman, Walpurg expresses the pain of creation to Sister Anna, who releases him from the straitjacket, gives him a pencil, and quickly becomes his lover:

“I’m composing poetry again now. But I think my poems are getting worse. I can’t write anymore. But then you can also use a pencil to kill yourself.”

The artist’s suffering for lack of appreciation permeates the play. It seems to parallel the trajectory of the playwright’s own life. Witkacy’s contemporaries and friends – painters, composers, and, most well-known to Americans, pianist Artur Rubenstein – eclipsed him.

One of the Madman’s many looks.


For the playwright, competition constitutes only part of the artist’s  dilemma and the play’s territory. The poet’s vulnerability to all he sees, his  own unconscious mind, his openness to the pain of others, his ability to see  what the other has been through—all these feed his art yet drive him  toward madness.

Witkacy has a lot of company. Here is an abbreviated list of just some of the  artists who have died by their own hand:

  • The poet Paul Celan
  • The painter Vincent Van Gogh
  • The poet Sylvia Plath
  • The novelist Virginia Woolf
  • The painter Mark Rothko
  • The novelist Ernest Hemingway
  • Most recently, the novelist David Foster Wallace

Vincent Van Gogh said of his own recurring breakdowns,

“And perhaps the disease of the heart is caused by this. One does not rebel against things, it does no good; nor is one resigned to them; one’s ill because of them and one does not get better.”

Must it be this way?

William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, describes in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madnesshis dependence on alcohol and his journey through depression.

Like the poet Baudelaire, he despaired, I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.

He adds:

“As for that initial triggering mechanism—what I have called the manifest crisis—can I really be satisfied with the idea that abrupt withdrawal from alcohol started the plunge downward? … Or could it be that a vague dissatisfaction with the way in which my work was going—the onset of inertia which has possessed me time and time again during my writing life, has made me crabbed and discontented—had also haunted me more fiercely …?”

He, like Witkacy’s poet, finds a way through the morass, depending on how the viewer chooses to read the ending of the play. That duplicity, the either/or, the to-be-or-not-to-be, is the territory of the play.

Bondarewska, artistic director of DC’s Ambassador Theater troupe, fully understands the artist’s plight. In presenting Madman here, she wants to make a difference. The play for her is the thing but not the only thing. She teaches through her program Ambassadors of International Culture and is now working with children at Hoffman-Boston Elementary school in Arlington, Virginia.

Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan) lets her hair down while an Assistant in the asylum (James Randle) looks on and exercises his imagination.

Her aim is to to build confidence, communication and hope. She wants to insulate the young mind against the vulnerability the creative soul faces. But in addition, she lives for the artist in us all. “In today’s world of technology,” she says, “the artist’s time is ever more narrowed to be free, to be devoted to their art.” Her greatest fear is that the contemporary artist, like Witkacy, will choose suicide rather than go on living and creating art.

The Madman and the Nun is a witty, lively, but extraordinarily thoughtful play. Theatergoers, artists, creative souls and anyone who wants both a fast romp and an intellectual challenge should carve some time out of their busy schedules to take in this most unusual play.

The Madman and the Nun runs through Dec. 18, 2011, 8 pm at Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street, NW, Washington, DC. Tickets: $30. Students and senior citizens $20. Buy tickets online or at the door.

The question remains, “Is the artist doomed?” For a positive take, listen to Elizabeth Gilbert who gave the following TED talk on precisely that question. This clip is on the long side, so sample as much as you wish.

Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster” Find out more at



Dec 042011

The Madman and the Nun at Ambassador Theater

By Charlotte Asmuth – December 5, 2011

The Mead Theatre is, indeed, a lab. As soon as you enter the lobby, you are immersed in what appears to be an art exhibit — yes, you are in the right place — and invited to peruse programs in the guise of medical files.

David Berkenbilt as Dr. Grun and Mary Suib as Sister Barbara in The Madman and the Nun. Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

The theatrical experiment begins fittingly early for Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s The Madman and the Nun, in which Dr. Bidello (a dementedly overdramatic Ivan Zizek) is only too eager to pawn his job of curing a deranged poet, Walpurg (John Stange), off on an unlucky nun and a freewheeling psychiatrist. Walpurg turns out to be the poet his new caregiver, Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan), read with her ex-fiancé, an engineer who committed suicide. This disclosure prompts Walpurg to quip, cheerfully, “So nowadays even engineers can have problems like that?” In no time at all, Sister Anna has returned Walpurg’s “I love you” and renounced her religion on his behalf.

Let the farce begin.

Director Hanna Bondarewska has neatly orchestrated both the quietude necessary for the intimate moments between Walpurg and Sister Anna and the chaotic hilarity that ensues when the entire cast is onstage. Her swooping choreography when Anna helplessly joins Walpurg in a looping rocking sequence in one scene is mesmerizing.

Jen Bevan as Attendant (Alfreda), James Randle as Attendant (Pafnutius), Mary Suib as Sister Barbara, Jenny Donovan as Sister Anna, David Berkenbilt as Dr. Grun and John Stange as Walpurg (Madman) in 'The Madman and the Nun.' Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

The ensemble is comprised of Mary Suib (as the chastising Sister Barbara with a “penitence complex”), David Berkenbilt (as the doctor with “a little too much of the sexual” in his theory), Ray Converse as the batty Professor Walldorff, James Randle and Jen Bevan as Attendants. Berkenbilt is delightfully absurd. When Walpurg kills Dr. Bidello in a fit of whimsical jealousy, he exclaims, “This is unheard of! So you really feel alright?” He is laughably recognizable as the psychiatrist who gets ‘treated’ by the patient. The croaky catch in Suib’s voice slows down her delivery making her punch lines all the better. Converse plays Walldorff as sexually ambiguous, making his critique of Berkenbilt’s “too sexual” theory all the more ironic.

John Stange brings a warm, strange humor to his portrayal of the straitjacketed, insane poet who oscillates between sarcastic cheeriness and paranoia, sometimes by merely redirecting the distance of his gaze. You’ll laugh hard when Walpurg and Anna are caught in flagrante because Jenny Donovan keeps the timid nun’s sexuality subtly latent.

Costume Designer Jen Bevan decks Donovan’s Anna out in a hot pink dress with chunky, sparkling heels to match. Set Designer Daniel Pinha has two monitors emitting colorful EEG waves on either side of a mounted mattress in the center of the stage. Marianne Meadows’ lighting effectively evokes the prison that is the sanitarium and David Crandall’s sound design is quietly omnipresent.

The finale is dissociation of the self-physicalized – and theatre of the absurd realized.

Running time: About 90 minutes.

To Read:


Dec 022011

Waszyngton. “Wariat i zakonnica” w Teatrze Ambassador

W Teatrze Ambassador w Waszyngtonie odbyÅ‚a siÄ™ w czwartek wieczorem (czasu USA) premiera sztuki “Wariat i zakonnica” StanisÅ‚awa Ignacego Witkiewicza, jednego z najpopularniejszych dzieÅ‚ polskiego prekursora teatru absurdu.

Przedstawienie w tÅ‚umaczeniu Daniela Geroulda reżyserowaÅ‚a Hanna Bondarewska – dyrektor artystyczny teatru. Akcja sztuki dzieje siÄ™ w szpitalu psychiatrycznym. Bohaterem jest zamkniÄ™ty w nim mÅ‚ody poeta MieczysÅ‚aw Walpurg (w angielskim tÅ‚umaczeniu imiÄ™ zmieniono na Aleksander), który próbuje uciec przy pomocy piÄ™knej zakonnicy.


Surrealistyczny komediodramat napisany przez Witkacego w 1923 r. interpretowano jako metaforę konfliktu jednostki z opresyjnym społeczeństwem.



Obecny na premierze Daniel Gerould, profesor nowojorskiego City University of New York (CUNY), jeden z najwybitniejszych specjalistów od twórczości Witkacego na świecie, chwalił inscenizację w rozmowie z PAP.


- Dobrze, że reżyserka nie wystawiÅ‚a sztuki w sposób archaiczno-historyczny, tylko z odniesieniami do współczesnoÅ›ci, odwoÅ‚ujÄ…c siÄ™ do wrażliwoÅ›ci dzisiejszego widza – powiedziaÅ‚ krytyk.


Przedstawienia “Wariata i zakonnicy” w Teatrze Ambassador bÄ™dÄ… siÄ™ odbywaÅ‚y 6 razy w tygodniu do 18 grudnia wÅ‚Ä…cznie.


PremierÄ™ poprzedziÅ‚ wieczór poÅ›wiÄ™cony twórczoÅ›ci Witkacego w Fundacji KoÅ›ciuszkowskiej w Waszyngtonie z udziaÅ‚em profesora literatury z waszyngtoÅ„skiego Uniwersytetu im. George’a Masona, Marka Rudnickiego. WygÅ‚osiÅ‚ on odczyt o polskim dramaturgu.

Z Waszyngtonu Tomasz Zalewski
03-12-2011 – wortal teatru polskiego © Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego