October 20, 2007

Outside the Comfort Zone With "Krum"

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that there are two kinds of theater lovers in New York: uptown theater people who prefer Broadway shows and those produced by established off-Broadway companies like the Manhattan Theater Club, Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons and the Roundabout Theatre Company; and downtown theater people whose tastes run towards The Wooster Group, La MaMa and the Next Wave festival at BAM. In this cultural cold war, the Public Theater is the old Berlin, claimed by both. At one time, I shuttled back and forth but in recent years, I've been primarily an uptown gal. So, I had reservations when my friend Lesley emailed to invite me to see Krum, a nearly three-hour experimental work co-produced by TR Warszawa and Cracow's Stary Teatr and performed entirely in Polish. "Well that's not usually my kind of thing," I typed back. "I think it's good for us to keep up with what the Europeans are doing," replied Lesley, who is a visual artist, a BAM subscriber and someone I've known since high school when her mom, who was Colleen Dewhurst's roommate in drama school, directed us in school plays. So on Friday night, I tiptoed outside my comfort zone and met Lesley at the BAM Harvey Theater to see the third of Krum's four performances.

As the ushers checked our tickets, they told us the show was scheduled to run for 2 hours and 45 minutes and that there would be no intermission. Lesley darted off for the ladies' room; I braced myself for an even longer than expected evening. But to my surprise, after I got used to reading the subtitles projected on a big screen hanging over the stage, I found the show strangely compelling. The play, written in 1975 by the Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, tells the story of Krum, a man who returns to his home country after an unsuccessful attempt to make good in the U.S. and then tries to pick up life with his old and equally disillusioned friends. That sounds simple but director Krzysztof Warlikowski's production is a cavalcade of theatricality. There are film and video projections, dance numbers, and audience participation segments. At one point, I thought "They've got everything in here but juggling" and a minute later, someone started to juggle a ball. The tone runs from farce to melodrama, with large does of existential angst throughout. The acting is terrific; the smart lighting, almost a character in itself, appealed to Lesley’s artistic eye; and I'm having trouble getting the Europop sound score out of my head. The whole thing reminded me of a 3-D version of a Pedro Almodóvar movie. I didn't understand all of it but I was constantly engaged. (Click here to see some excerpts.)

Seeing the show was a reminder that it can be good to get outside one's comfort zone. It was also yet another reminder of how small a comfort zone there is for the arts in this country. My Krum playbill keeps flipping open to an ad from Altria, the company that has been the primary sponsor of the Next Wave Festival for all of its 25-year existence. But, as the New York Times reported last week, Altria, the alias adopted by the old Philip Morris Companies, is moving its corporate headquarters out of New York and taking its arts funding with it (click here to read the article.) It’s been no secret that the company has used its patronage to temper its bad image as a purveyor of cigarettes, a tactic used by other unpopular corporate bad guys like oil companies and liquor distillers. And there’s been much debate about whether arts groups should take the dirty money. Now, that issue is moot, unless arms dealers, HMOs or Blackwater USA are looking to polish up their reputations. If not, it'll be up to the rest of us who care about art for arts sake to put up by buying tickets and making out-of-our-comfort-zone contributions or some arts organizations around the city, particularly the small theaters that often nurture the most innovative ideas, may have to shut up.

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