By Bob Shuman
A cello stands at the center of This Is Why We Live, at La Mama, which closed September 29 and Oedipus, Sex with Mum was Blinding, at BAM Fisher, which also ended on that date, two international pieces—one based on the poetry of Wisława Symborska and the other after Sophocles, with a classical and jazz score by Tilemachos Moussas & Julia Kent. Both are directed by women and focus, primarily, on women’s themes and talents, down to a string’s last pluck and bow.
When she won the Nobel Prize in 1996, Symborska drew the attention, and hearts, of the world with something almost as small—the modesty of her Polish life (at the time, Edward Hirsh, writing for The New York Times, described the apartment where she lived: a fifth-floor walk-up, in “a nondescript building”; the living room, “where she writes, doubles as her bedroom”). Today (Symborska died in 2012), twenty-one of her poems are acted earnestly, in Open Heart Surgery’s Canadian- and Polish-backed production (direction is by Coleen MacPherson, and the evening is performed by Elodie Monteau (France), Alaine Hutton (Canada) and Dobrochna Zubek (Poland/Canada) to music written by Zubek. Musical development and dramaturgy are by Tatiana Judycka and Dobrochna Zubek. Set and costume design are by Helen Yung. Lighting design is by Rebecca Picherak. The show is played in English, Polish, and French, using subtitles.
L-R: Alaine Hutton, Elodie Monteau, Dobrochna Zubek. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Men have contributed editorially, even if they are not in the show: the French translation is by Piotr Kaminski; English translation is by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak; Dramaturgy and translation support is by Viktor Lukawski—all of which might have confounded the poet: ”I think that dividing literature or poetry into women’s and men’s poetry is starting to sound absurd,” Symborska states in the Hirsh interview, ”Perhaps there was a time when a woman’s world did exist, separated from certain issues and problems, but at present there are no things that would not concern women and men at the same time.” New Yorkers have been watching the crystallization of women’s theatre in the city’s arts scene, though, even when co-opting writers, such as Symborska, who might be philosophically opposed to such a conceptualization. Her work, playful and ironic (“Don’t blame me for borrowing big words and then struggling to make them light”) does not find itself dramatically in the current production, despite the skill and dedication of the Butoh and Lecoq-trained theatremakers. Yet her writing is reflective of the issues being explored today by women in the arts and nonfiction–eating disorders are alluded to in one segment of This Is Why We Live, for example, as one of the dancers stuffs herself with cake. The self-deprecation, penetrating self-criticism is apparent in a piece like “Under One Small Star,” ideas which will reappear in Greek director Elli Papakonstantinou’s goth Oedipus.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second /
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first /
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home /
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger /
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths /
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today /
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time . . .
Unless it is deeply, painfully ironic, laughter is not associated with Jocasta, the wife and mother of Oedipus. If Papakonstantinou (she also conceived and wrote the immersive opera) is to be believed, the ancient queen’s self-recriminatory behavior is also well-known in the lives of women today—and is an issue for men as well. ODC Ensemble’s Oedipus, Sex with Mum was Blinding is an intensification of Szymboska’s examination of women’s guilt, as well as a deep-dive into the psychology of the ancient queen (the seer Teireias also appears, who lived life both as a woman and a man). The grunge immersion—the often grainy cinematic environment is by Stephanie Sherriff–uses singing and technology, pop culture and neuroscience (advised by professor Manos Tsakiris), even an m.c., a keyboardist for the show, Misha Piatigorsky, who combines Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and Joel Grey in Cabaret. Other men in the cast include Lito Messini as Oedipus, Elias Husiak, and Tsakiris. Papakonstantinou may seem indiscriminate, because she can pull from everywhere—she is unafraid of postmodernism, myth, and onstage cameras–the kind many Americans will recognize having seen work by Ivo van Hove—music (Kent plays the cello onstage)—including Philip Glass sounds and an excerpt from “Nature Boy”–languages, social media, and politics—“this country is based on racism.” Debatably, she shapes the work into the story of three women, an actor (Nassia Gofa) and two singers (Anastasia Katsinavaki, Theodora Loukas), one classical and the other jazz, who might seem to be refracting the same character, in guilt and trauma. Papakonstantinou is never exactly clear in her excursion through the subconscious—but she understands and elicits the feelings Symborska transcribes, in, as another illustration, the baldly titled poem: “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”:
The buzzard never says it is to blame. /
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean. /
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame. /
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.”
The poet finishes: “On this third planet of the sun / among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is number one.”
Current women’s theatre explicates, however, that no human, at least, has one.
© 2019 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
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THIS IS WHY WE LIVE
Design Assistant: Judie Plaza
Set Design Assistant: Kevin Yung
Lighting Design by Rebecca Picherak
Lighting Associate: Nic Vincent
Projection Design by Wesley McKenzie
Stage Management by A.J. Morra
Dramaturgy and Translation Support by Viktor Lukawski
Poetry by Wisława Szymborska
French Translation by Piotr Kamiński
English Translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
Artistic Support by Yearime Castel Barragan and Sallie Lyons
This project is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Polish Consulate (Canada) & The Polish Institute
Press: Jonathan Slaff
OEDIPUS, SEX WITH MUM WAS BLINDING
ODC Ensemble (Athens, Greece) with
The Directors Company
Sex with Mum Was Blinding
An Immersive Opera
Conceived, written and directed by
Original Music Composed by
and Julia Kent
Cinematic Environments by
Lighting design: Elli Papakonstantinou
Mask concepts, design and materialization: Maritina Keleri & Chrysanthi Avloniti
Costume Design: Jolene Richardson
Nassia Gofa, Elias Husiak, Anastasia Katsinavaki, Theodora Loukas, Lito Messini, Manos Tsakiris, Julia Kent (cello), Misha Piatigorsky (piano), Hassan Estakhrian, Barbara Nerness (electroacoustic environments), and Stephanie Sherriff (live cinematic environment)
Scientific Advisor: Professor Manos Tsakiris
Press: Michelle Tabnick
Photos–This Is Why We Live: Jonathan Slaff; Oedipus: Carol Rosegg