The last time we ran across Michael Hunter, he was chumming around Stanford with Mario Biagini, the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski. Michael has been busy since then. He has recently established a theater company in San Francisco, The Collected Works, with four other graduates of the Stanford doctoral program in drama. One of them is Florentina Mocanu-Schendel – we’ve written about her, too, here.
Princess Ilona was first published in the literary journal Skamander in 1938, and first performed in 1957 at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, when the Communist government in Poland briefly lifted a ban on Gombrowicz’s work. After that, his work vanished from Poland until the 1970s (and was not published until the 1980s).
He’s not as well known, at least in the U.S., for his drama – so this Bay Area premiere will be a rare treat indeed. The first performance begins on Thursday, Jan. 24 and continues through February 9 at San Francisco’s Performance Art Institute. Buy tickets here.
But wait! It gets better! Lillian Vallee, Swarthmore’s Allen Kuharski, author Erik Butler, Michael Hunter and Stanford’s Branislav Jakokljevic will have a panel discussion at 1 p.m. on Friday, January 25, in Piggott Theatre, Memorial Auditorium. “We’ll be discussing Gombrowicz’s legacy, his Diary, and my production in San Francisco,” Michael wrote me in an email.
Lillian is mostly known to me as one of the fine team of Czeslaw Milosz translators; I got to know her when she contributed to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, and we later met face to face at a Milosz centennial celebration at the Nobel poet’s home in Berkeley. She’s just published a new edition of Gombrowicz’s Diary with Yale University Press.
The deadlines are swift and terrible this week, so I’ll pinch a short description of the play from the company’s press release:
Princess Ivona (or Ivona, Princess of Burgundia) is the first, and most internationally performed, of the plays of Witold Gombrowicz, the influential Polish novelist, playwright, and diarist, whom John Updike has called “one of the profoundest of the late moderns” and Milan Kundera “one of the great novelists of our century.” Widely performed and celebrated throughout Europe and on the East Coast, Gombrowicz’s timeless and wickedly funny allegory is finally being introduced to Bay Area audiences, by a brand-new company of gifted and experienced theatre makers, in the exciting new warehouse space of the Performance Art Institute.
The play follows the bizarre intrigues of a self-confident Royal Court, whose members enjoy an unchallenged sense of privilege, luxury, and control – over both themselves and others. The presence of a strange, awkward, silent young woman who mysteriously wanders into their world soon throws the court into a tailspin – the King and Queen begin to unravel at the core of their being, and the rational functioning of the court’s administrators becomes increasingly lunatic. As the play spirals towards its astonishing ending, both the story and Gombrowicz’s inventive language become more outlandish and theatrical.
The company calls the play a “well-built and versatile machine,” quoting Gombrowicz: “A writer can, if he wishes, describe reality as he sees it or as he imagines it to be; this produces realistic works (…) But he can also apply a different method in which reality is reduced to its component parts, after which these parts are used like bricks to construct a new edifice, a new world or microcosm, which ought to be different from the regular world and yet correspond with it in some way … different but, as the physicists say, adequate.”
I like this shorter Gombrowicz injunction, from the Collected Works website: “Review your platitudes.”
Lillian and Kuharski will hold a “talkback” after the Friday night performance in San Francisco. Who knows? You might even find me there. It all depends on me clearing a few deadlines first…