Corrections or additions?
This article by Merilyn Jackson was prepared for the December 5,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Poland: Ferdydurke
Ferdydurke may not be a word you’ve ever heard. It’s
a made up word, a nonsense word that Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz
gave to the first novel of a trilogy he began in Poland in 1937.
novelist, diarist and iconoclast, he earned a reputation in Poland
as a scandalous genius, even though he lived in self-imposed exile
in Argentina for 24 years, stranded there when Hitler invaded his
native land. "Ferdydurke" was adapted for the stage a quarter
Now on its second U.S. tour, the Polish theater company Provisorium
and Kompania is showing Americans what "Ferdydurke" means.
Considered Poland’s leading alternative troupe, Provisorium and
is comprised of two recently merged theater companies from Lublin,
Poland. Last August they won a Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh
Fringe Festival. The company began its current tour of the only
version of "Ferdydurke" at New York’s LaMaMa Theater in early
November, and went on to Swarthmore College, and University of Utah.
You can see "Ferdydurke" at Princeton University’s Matthews
Acting Theater, Friday and Saturday, December 7 and 8, at 8 p.m.
Playwright Gombrowicz (pronounced Gom-BROH-veetch) had Rabelais in
his DNA and his literary antecedents went back through Alfred Jarry’s
"Ubu Roi" to Moliere. Born in 1904, he was a leftist,
and bisexual whose writings use brutal wit and outrageous sexual
to ridicule authority and class distinctions. His themes of
and mutual debasement opposed all party lines and his books were
in Communist Poland. Although his works have been translated into
many languages, and his plays produced in 30 countries, Gombrowicz
is known in America for his Argentine diaries and for his play
Princess of Burgundia." In the early 1960s he moved to France,
where he died in 1969.
Janusz Oprynski and Witold Mazurkiewicz direct
and Kompania’s production of this satirical work. Mazurkiewicz also
plays Josef, a 30-year-old writer whose old professor, Pimko (played
by Jacek Brzezinski) forces him to return to high school. There, he
regresses to a 16-year-old, and, from an adult perspective,
agonies of adolescence that include crude schoolyard taunts and
Michal Zgiet and Jaroslaw Tomica, who performed for years with
leading post-Grotowski ensemble, the Gardzienice Theatre Association,
vigorously enact one of the story’s most hilarious scenes. As Josef’s
pals Mietus and Siphon they duel with each other — their only
weapons grotesque facial grimaces and both pious and obscene gestures.
No matter what page or stage you’re on with Gombrowicz, discovering
a mind this brilliant can make laughter explode when you least expect
it. He was rooted in satire that sometimes turned scatological. His
backsides are always up front. You could imagine him arriving at his
title, "Ferdydurke," after discarding the French excremental
expletive that would have made "merde-durke."
A few words about Polish theater: It ranks among the best in the
Actors, directors, and theater scholars flood Poland to study and
share its traditions and innovations. It can be operatic,
or Brechtian, but contemporary Polish theater frequently looks to
one of the century’s most important theorists on acting, the late
Jerzy Grotowski. Though Grotowski never did comedy, he is credited
with indirectly influencing Provisorium and Kompania group on its
Far from talking-head theater, this is full-body imagery in which
the highly animated actors speak as quickly as they move, but often
with deliberate artifice. Texts from the novel sometimes collide with
each other or are conflated for the stage into text and imagery,
by its four performers into a tumultuous evening of physical theater.
The tight, rapid-fire choreography among the four characters often
positions them no farther than three feet from one another. At the
same time, the movements and gestures of the actors punch the meaning
of the text home. For example, in one passage in the novel, Josef
peeps at a young girl disrobing just before being asked to recite
a poem in iambic pentameter. He declaims, "Thighs, thighs, thighs.
Thighs, thighs; thighs, thighs…" In Provisorium and Kompania’s
expressionistic interpretation of the same scene onstage, two pairs
of bare male legs framed in a window transmit the meaning, and at
the same time also upend it.
Allen Kuharski adapted the English version of the play. The director
of theater studies at Swarthmore, Kuharski first saw
in a Polish-language production in 1981 in Warsaw, where he had gone
to study on a Fulbright Fellowship. "It was a time of great
says Kuharski. "Solidarity had put a lot of pressure on the
People were anxious but purposeful."
Politics made it impossible for Kuharski to complete his Fulbright;
forced to return home, he wasn’t sure what to do next. "One thing
I was sure of, was that someday I wanted to bring Gombrowicz to
audiences," he says. "`Ferdydurke’ was one of the funniest
things I had ever seen."
"`Ferdydurke’ appeals to the nasty child in you," says
"It’s taboo because it’s about the body, but it’s not pure farce
because of its intellectual quality." He adds that German author
Gunter Grass, an admirer of Gombrowicz’s prose, wrote "The Tin
Drum" 30 years after "Ferdydurke." "Its action mirrors
that of `Ferdydurke,’" says Kuharski, "but it’s a flip side
or a response, with Oscar [the main character] who never grows
And how do Polish actors take to speaking their roles in English?
"You don’t need to speak Spanish to enjoy Mexican food," he
replies. "Polish actors are first rate and frequently
Provisorium and Kompania have no trouble performing in English."
New York Times critic Bruce Weber has described the show as "not
only funny but stunningly evocative." Over the last two years,
I’ve seen it in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York. I marveled
at how how audiences in such different regions respond to it —
almost as viscerally as the acting. Adolescence grants us the freedom
to be nasty and Gombrowicz lets us love the nasty child in us.
— Merilyn Jackson
Studio, 185 Nassau, 609-258-1742. Advance tickets at Frist Student
Center office. $10; $8 students; Friday & Saturday, December 7
& 8, at 8 p.m.
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