Jun 082015
BWW Reviews:  A Mesmerizing, Memorable TRAP At Ambassador TheaterIt’s easy to misunderstand the avant-garde: we come to the theatre expecting a normal story told by actors who are easy to follow, with sets that are exactly what they appear to be. And when a production deviates from the norm we tend to squirm, flip through the program and hope the intermission comes soon so we can split for the bar down the block. 

Why can’t they just give it to us straight? Because for many of us life is irreparably complex, our experience shattered by tragedies and burdens that typical audiences cannot begin to imagine. In order for the artist to tell that story and do it justice, nothing about it could possibly be normal.

Consider Samuel Beckett, who spent years in the Resistance during World War II roaming the desolate, war-torn French countryside waiting for his next contact-an experience echoed in his masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Now consider the life of another artist whose country’s existence has hung repeatedly in the balance, a man who experienced Nazi occupation, bore witness to the Holocaust and then endured over forty years of Communist dictatorship. How can you express the psychological devastation of all those years, combined with the artist’s indomitable will to rise from the ashes again and again? To stage this experience as if it were normal would render it ridiculous.

Ambassador Theater, with their production of Polish poet Tadeusz Rózewicz’s masterpiece The Trap, has introduced Washington audiences to another theatrical genius of Beckett’s stature. Like Beckett, Rózewicz fought the Nazis; unlike Beckett, Rózewicz did not have the luxury of spending the rest of his career writing as he pleased in the democratic West. Instead he had to navigate the treacherous waters of Soviet rule, where literature became a battleground and attacks needed to be carefully staged indeed. Through his collaboration with artists like the great director Tadeusz Kantor in Krakow, Rózewicz developed theatrical techniques that reflected his own life and enabled his audiences to think deeply about what they were living through.

The Trap was inspired by Rózewicz’s love for the Czech author Franz Kafka; but because Kafka was Jewish, and because works like Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle anticipated the nightmares of Nazism and totalitarianism which came soon after his death (he died in 1924), his works were banned throughout Eastern Europe. Kafka was forbidden at the very moment when people needed his artistic vision the most.

It is easy to see why Rózewicz found a kindred spirit in Kafka, someone who understood what the future held and who could give voice to the suffering that plagued so many for so long. What makes Kafka even more compelling is the way his suffering was largely self-imposed; imprisoned by his need to write and struggling with ailments that would send him to an early grave, he tried desperately to live but was plagued by self-doubt. A self-doubt so deep that he asked to have his writings burned after he died; (fortunately for us his best friend, Max Brod, refused to do so).

The Trap traces key elements in Kafka’s life-his domineering father, his sympathetic (and mischievous) sisters, his serial engagements to women, his affairs, etc. Rózewicz’s masterstroke is the way he weaves the much darker future-the rise of Nazism, his sisters’ death in the Holocaust, and the long Soviet occupation-with the troubled ‘present’ of Kafka’s time.

Rózewicz creates a space in which past, present and ominous future occur simultaneously; Franz, the Kafka character, is accompanied throughout the show by Animula (“little soul,” played affectingly by Alexander Rolinski), a young boy who accompanies Kafka and witnesses everything. We’re free to interpret Animula as we see fit – is he Kafka’s pure soul? Is he Kafka as a boy, a reminder of lost innocence? Does he represent the child-like vision of the artist? Whatever we choose to see in him, his presence haunts much of what follows.

Meanwhile a small phalanx of Soviet-era, trench-coated secret police (costumed by Sigrídur Jóhannsedóttir) move in and around the stage, performing set changes and quietly reinforcing our sense of paranoia. Kafka’s paranoia was primarily personal, but would soon become a defining experience for the generations that followed. These police also greet you in the lobby, conducting you upstairs to the theatre in stiff, formal fashion-a reminder that even in the pre-internet age, privacy in some places had already disappeared.

Leading the cast is Matthew Payne, who as Franz captures the anxiety and exuberance of the artist. His delivery is rushed at times, and is of a piece with a young man who suspects that his end is near, but who has a world of words to communicate. Colin Davies, as the Father, rules the stage as the petty dictator of Franz’s household, (Kafka fans will remember he wrote an epic diatribe against him). Davies’ forceful performance calls to mind Steven Berkoff, whose interpretations of Kafka are themselves legendary.

It would be a very long review to list all the fine performances in the supporting cast; but well worth mention is Madeline Burrows who shines as Ottia, Franz’s ever-cheerful sister; Burrows also has a chilling pre-show role as TV journalist/interrogator in the theatre lobby, a spectacle in which she questions a caged Franz. Morganne Davies and Ariana Almajan likewise light up the stage as Felice and Grete, two of the most important women in Franz’s life. And Benjamin Koontz gives a solid performance as Max, Franz’s close friend, his anchor in reality and-by virtue of receiving his papers for burning-Franz’s de facto literary executor.

Director Hanna Bondarewska has assembled an inventive creative team, who give us a vivid glimpse of the Polish avant-garde. Set designer Carl Gudenius has filled this bare, experimental space with trapezoidal projection screens and, most intriguingly, ominously-shaped oblong boxes. In this world, things are never really as they seem; when standing the boxes appear to be wardrobes and fireplaces, and when laid flat they can be beds, benches, dinner tables – and yet the inescapable image of the coffin is there as well. Bondarewska and Kathy Gordon choreograph scene changes to forefront the ever-changing nature of life in Kafka’s Prague, accompanied by composer Jerzy Satanowski’s haunting score; Satanowski incorporates a variety of instruments and themes, which comment on and aid the momentum of each scene.

Gudenius’ scenic flats become the locus of a series of fascinating projections, designed by Riki Kim; alternating between abstract figures, barbed wire and blossoming flowers (often shown as photographic negatives), Kim’s work heightens the sense of alienation and fragmentation experienced by the characters onstage.

The Trap is a rarity for Washington; a glimpse of an avant-garde movement whose techniques were forged in the crucible of two world wars and decades-long Communist dictatorship. The result is a fascinating evening of theater, and one that artists in DC would do well to study.

Production Photo: Matthew Payne as Franz, with Madeline Burrows as Ottia. Photo by Valentine Radev.

Advisory: the show includes brief nudity, dramatizations of the Holocaust, and is more appropriate for audiences 16 and older.

Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission.

The Trap plays at the XX Building (a former church), 814 20th St. NW. Tickets at:

http://www.aticc.org/home/category/get-tickets .


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Jun 022015

‘The Trap’ at Ambassador Theater

by  on May 31, 2015
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The gaunt and haunted figure of Franz Kafka obsessed the renowned Polish poet, novelist, and dramatist Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014). His two-act play The Trap—part expressionistic, part realistic—poetically thrusts Kafka’s anxieties and nightmares front and center. First published in 1982, The Trap as translated by Adam Czerniawski is now getting its U.S. premiere in an imaginative and fittingly Kafkaesque staging directed for Ambassador Theater by Hanna Bondarewska.

Abigail Ropp (Elli), Emily Gilson (Vallie), Alexander Rolinski (Animula), Colin Davies (Father), Melissa Robinson (Mother), Matthew Payne (Franz), and Madeline Burrows (Ottla). Photo by Valentin Radev.L to R: Abigail Ropp (Elli), Emily Gilson (Vallie), Alexander Rolinski (Animula), Colin Davies (Father), Melissa Robinson (Mother), Matthew Payne (Franz), and Madeline Burrows (Ottla). Photo by Valentin Radev. 

In the lobby a short pre-show scene plays out: Inside a cage labeled “Hunger Artist,” the actor who will play Franz (a lean and anguished Matthew Lindsay Payne) rants about why he is starving: as a political rebuke those who overconsume. (Kafka did himself write a story called The Hunger Artist, and Różewicz loosely based a play upon it.) Nearby stand ominously authoritative figures in long black trench coats and dark glasses who usher us into the theater.

More of a fan’s fantasia on Kafka’s life than a fact-based biography, The Trap is an ingenious amalgam of lively sketches and punchy scenes. Among them are episodes from Kafka’s childhood with his overbearing Father (a fearsome Colin Davies), incidents from his serial courtships with women to whom he could not commit—Felice (Morganne Davies), Grete (Ariana Almajan), and Jana Slowik (Abigail Ropp), and badinage with his best friend Max Brod (a robust Benjamin Koontz). (It was the real Max Brod whom Kafka made promise to burn his writings upon his death but who, recognizing their worth as literature, preserved them instead. Were it not for Brod’s posthumous betrayal, we’d have bupkis of Kafka.) Flash-forwarding in time, The Trap also shows scenes evoking the Holocaust and imagining Kafka’s family being caught up in it (though their lifetimes were actually earlier).

Ambassador Theater is known for importing edgy and important European dramatic literature to DC, and The Trap is its biggest production yet; usually the company’s runs are in smaller venues. The set designed by Carl Gudenius consists of large trapezoidal panels on casters and heavy wooden boxes that, along with other furniture, the actors heave and maneuver into different positions to set each successive scene. The angular, expressionistic flexible playing spaces created thereby are impressive and visually striking—though the scene changes themselves at times seemed to take longer than the scenes in between. These pace-slowing intervals did, however, have an upside: They provided opportunities to appreciate the exquisite incidental music that was specially scored for this production by Jerzy Satanowski.

An eminent Polish composer with whom Bondarewska has collaborated before, Satanowski has created an extraordinary musical environment that like the play is also an imaginative amalgam—piano, cello, percussion, and assorted other effects evoking bubbling and circuses and a world of wonder all its own. Rarely during a play do I think to myself, as I did during The Trap, that I wished I could listen to its music cues again and again.

Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz) and Matthew Lindsay Payne (Franz Kafka). Photo by Valentin Radev.Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz) and Matthew Lindsay Payne (Franz Kafka). Photo by Valentin Radev. 

What this mounting lacked in momentum it more than made up for in layers of momentous meaning. Among them is the luminous performance of Alexander Rolinski, who plays Young Franz as well as a character identified as Animula, which means “little soul.” The boy has but one scene with dialogue, sick in bed cared by his nanny Josie (Ariana Almajan).

But during many other passages this little soul moves about, unseen by other characters, as if in silent witness to the inner torment of the elder Franz. In Rolinski’s expressive face can be read a fascinating perspective on the play we are watching: It is the point of view of the inner child who necessarily stays alive in every great artist—and who is here made transparent through the inner life of a exceptionally promising young actor.

Another rich layer of meaning in The Trap is the puzzling and provocative relationship between Różewicz and Kafka, which I found myself pondering all evening. Is Różewicz somehow playing Boswell to a Johnson here? Is Różewicz appropriating and riffing on another artist’s life as if to extoll it but actually to undermine it by insinuating himself into his subject’s aura vicariously? Is Różewicz actually putting Kafka in his place, thereby ennobling himself?

These speculations were prompted by the odd way the character of Kafka is written in the script of The Trap. Pretty much everyone in Kafka’s life bluntly calls him out on his character defects. Not only does young Franz get damagingly critiqued by his distant and judgmental father (who in a biblical nightmare scene that Franz dreams plays Abraham about to slay his son). Franz also gets dissed by the several women he courts who (somewhat unaccountably) fall in love with him, as well as his best bud Brod, who (somewhat unaccountably) is genuinely fond of him. They all have his number dead on: Franz can’t relate to reality; he’s got lousy social skills; he doesn’t reciprocate their regard for him; he’s a self-obsessed downer and a drag. Basically the script offers little in the way of redeeming features for its central character, unless you remind yourself, Oh right, the historical figure this dude is based on wrote some amazing shit. The upside of this textual vacuum is that it thrusts a provocative dynamic between author and main character front and center. The downside is that the play as written offers an audience little reason to care about the main character or what happens to him.

Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I overstate this case in order to point out that the role of Franz as written is a heckuva challenge for an actor. That actor has to overcome the script’s negativity about the character and portray someone we’ll enjoy the company of long enough to hang with for a couple hours. Matthew Lindsay Payne rises to the challenge commendably. His agile performance is characterized by lots of sudden tone and mood swings—like, really abrupt, as if he’s switching among multiple personalities. This has the salutary effect of conveying Kafka’s inner conflicts while at the same time opening opportunities for the actor to bring to the role his own personable, attractive, and charming qualities—all of which the historical Kafka sorely lacked.

This production is large scale also in the size of its cast, which besides those named above includes Ariana Almajan, Madeline Burrows, John Brennan, Marlowe Vilchez, Emily H. Gilson, Peter Orvetti, and Ed Klein (who gave a particularly shattering turn in a brief barbershop scene).

Colin Davies  (Father), Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz), and Melissa B. Robinson (Mother). Photo by Valentin Radev.Colin Davies (Father), Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz), and Melissa B. Robinson (Mother). Photo by Valentin Radev. 

Sigridur Jonnesdottir’s costume designs, especially for the women actors and the boy, were really lovely to look at. (I did not observe the multimedia projections designed by Riki Kim, which I’m told were not working the night I saw the show; Michael Stepowany’s lighting also seemed to be operating uncertainly. I have no doubt that will all be fixed.)

Franz Kafka looms over world literature; the mark he made is both indelible and enigmatic. By putting this writer’s troubled persona front and center—as seen through the eyes of a poetic writer distinguished in his own right—The Trap offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on this fascinating figure. And Ambassador Theater’s production plays the compelling and complex portrait to the hilt.

Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes, including one intermission.

The Trap plays through June 21, 2015 at The Ambassador Theater performing at XX Building at the George Washington University – 814 20th Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them online.