Stage Animal Warsaw Theater Tackles Hanoch Levin

Israel's prolific playwright is gaining popularity in Poland; one stellar production proves why.

/ Michael Handelzalts
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/ Michael Handelzalts

WARSAW - Gay soccer fans about to come out of the closet. A mother and her daughter, and their fatal relationship against the backdrop of occupied Poland. Twenty-first-century Poles who must deal with the guilt of World War II, a time when men handed their countrymen over to the Nazis in exchange for nothing more than a nice fur coat.

Curious characters such as these were largely featured in the program of plays presented to participants of the 26th conference of the International Association of Theater Critics in Warsaw last week - a display characterized by movement, song and visual experimentation.

Janusz Gajoz, left, and Anna Seniuk performing a scene from "The Labor of Life"

But even as these young and rebellious theater people staged various experimental performances, I opted one night for a more conventional theater experience: I went to a conventional theater, in a conventional hall, to see a play I know well - Hanoch Levin's "The Labor of Life," now on the Polish National Theater stage. The production is directed by Jan Englert, who is also the theater's artistic director and one of the best-known stage and film actors in Poland.

It has been said by Israelis that Levin's plays are successful only in Israel and that no one else demonstrates significant interest in his work (unlike his contemporary Joshua Sobol, for example ). Yet in recent years Levin has become a hit in Poland. At any given moment, some 10 theaters around the country are producing a Levin play; "Shitz" is now being performed in Warsaw at the Ateneum Theater. "The Labor of Life" opened in December and has been performed 30 times since, in the National Theater in Warsaw, which has 30 plays running in its repertory. In the remarkable auditorium (the theater's large hall was built 250 years ago, and wooden stands were set up for an audience of about 300 people ) the audience responded with a long standing ovation. The actors came out to take bows seven times. In directing "The Labor of Life" - which offers a piercing look at life and marriage - Englert uses the physical space to demonstrate the relationships of its characters. A double bed is positioned at the center of the stage - but it is not just a piece of furniture where the interactions between main characters Yona and Leviva Popukh take place (the play begins when he turns the bed with her on it ). Rather, it is a symbol: It stands on a small, raised and raked platform in the middle of a large, empty stage. The plot, for the most part, unfolds out around it. Indeed, the entire stage is a space that expropriates it from the minutiae of the day, because, as Englert says, this is "a poet's play," even though it ventures at times into the cruder realms of sex and bathroom humor.

Throughout the 90-minute performance, a video is projected onto the back wall of the stage. First we see a large city at night, the lights from the buildings resembling stars. Gradually, the image changes to a large view of a dense Milky Way, the space of a limitless universe.

Later, when hostility between Yona and Leviva intensifies, the image takes on a reddish hue, and for a moment it looks like the close-up view of a beating heart - not unlike what one might see in a TV crime drama. Finally, the screen gradually returns to the backdrop of the big, alienated city at night. But of course, this is mere background to the acting and the casting. It may not mean much coming from me, a tourist in Poland, but from reading about the cast I know that the two lead actors are among the leading stage, film and television stars in Poland.

The Yossi Banai of Poland

The part of Yona is played by Janusz Gajos. In Poland he is to some extent what Yossi Banai - who played the role in the 1990s - was in Israel: a dramatic actor with striking comic ability and a successful entertainment career. The beginning of the play features a monologue by Yona about his disappointment with life, and Gajos delivers it with a kind of weariness, as though he is whispering the words, repeating them to himself.

Anna Seniuk plays Leviva, who must deal with brutal rejection by her husband. She spreads the entire fan of female behavior - from insult, to disappointment, to pain - in order to suddenly become the seductive figure of a sensual woman trying to arouse her husband's dormant lust. But then she shakes him off angrily and sends "his jaguar" to hunt elsewhere.

In a conversation after the performance Englert related that a large part of his work was spent trying to prevent the two experienced and popular actors from trying too hard to win the hearts of the audience.

It is in fact difficult in this production not to be impressed by how brutal the play is with respect to the interpersonal relations depicted in it. Much of the time the audiences appear stunned and dumbstruck. It is only toward the end that laughter - perhaps the laughter of helplessness - arises.

Gajos and Seniuk are amazing in the main roles, and Wlodzimierz Press is also a huge success in the small role of Gunkel, the visitor who wants to warm himself in the firelight of the fading relations between Yona and Leviva. Englert notes that he harried Press more than his two leading actors, but also that Press was receptive to the director's challenges and made his scene a gem.

I admit, I do know who played this role in the two productions of "The Labor of Life" in Israel, but I don't remember them onstage. Now it is doubtful I will be able to forget what a wonderful character Gunkel is in this play, even though he only has one scene.

The final scene of the play takes place after Yona's death on the stage. In this production, Gajos leaves the stage, departing to his death, in pajamas and a robe - only to return later as a figure from the grave, for the final bow of the play, in a suit and a felt hat, in the spirit of Chekov.



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