White Marriage: Theater Review

Enci Box
A once avant-garde ironic critique of the sexual fantasies and sexist destiny of two contrasting adolescent girls by a preeminent postwar Polish poet unfortunately plays passe in this insufficiently reinvented revival.

Noted Polish poet and writer Tadeusz Rozewicz's psychosexual dissection of patriarchal society examines the coming-of-age of two young women.

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble had one of its early successes with its 1979 production of this 1974 surrealist play set in early 20th century Poland. Tadeusz Rozewicz, scarred but unbowed by the traumas of war during which he served in the Resistance, and today still a survivor at 92, boasts that acrid national sardonicism that grounds absurdism upon a diamond-hard psychosexual dissection of a patriarchal society.

Written under a Communist regime, the play masquerades as a period piece to camouflage its cynicism about the tentative carnal speculations of introverted and imaginative Bianca (Kate Dalton) and saucily coquettish Pauline (Emily Goss), each still a child. Even as they near marriageable age, their curiosity about anatomy and desire unsuspectingly is fated to be subjugated by a future circumscribed by harshly restrictive female roles.

Thirty-five years ago, these observations were still freshly trenchant, and the admixture of farce, fantasy and bourgeoisie discontent rather daring. Then and present director Ron Sossi notes ruefully that for all its experimental qualities, the show then toured the state with funding from the now barely functioning California Arts Council. It is rare for OTE to revive its own work (I can only think of Mary Barnes and The Chicago Conspiracy Trial), and Sossi’s affection is quite evident in his fluid and coherent comfort with the challenges of tone and hairpin turns in style. Even so, for all its solid component parts, the play’s vision no longer scintillates.

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There is no credited translation, but the speech has the stolidity one used to encounter often in infelicitous early transcriptions of foreign writers: stilted, oddly formal and lacking idiomatic flow. Sossi knows how to enforce a uniformity of diction and gesture, creating a stage world in which we come to accept that this is how its language is spoken. But it remains an alienating factor that should be unnecessary in this era of higher standards for adapting literature into recognizable rhetoric.

Moreover, while Rozewicz’s insights remain unassailable, they are hardly novel anymore, and much of the jarring juxtapositions no longer particularly inventive, as they somewhat laboriously gyrate from the imitative Chekhovian to Ionesco-like exaggeration. Best are the freely shared inner lives of the two excellent ingenues, which pulsate with believably naive boldness and vulnerability. Worst are the Mittel-European expressionist mannerisms that should have been foregone by a poet who had rivaled Czeslaw Milosz by seizing the mantle of a traumatized postwar consciousness.

Nevertheless, there are genuine, even sublime, pleasures to be had in the otherwise problematically uneven material. To see John Apicella as the Father don the head of a bull while incarnating the horny drive of a compulsive satyr is a spectacle indeed. To savor the ineffable talent of Beth Hogan, originally the headstrong Pauline, now the wise and wily Aunt who affects dullness only to emerge with acute perceptions. And to relish the richness of Diana Cignoni as the embittered Mother, a brittle and broken reminder of the failure of arranged marriage, employing such economy of means and dry, strained vocal expression as to convey volumes of pent-up disappointment.

Perhaps mounting Rozewicz’s Kafka play The Trap might have proven a more stimulating way for Sossi to pay tribute to both their past triumphs. 

Venue: The Odyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles (runs through May 22)

Cast: Kate Dalton, Emily Goss, Diana Cignoni, Beth Hogan, John Apicella, Austin Rogers, Mark Bramhall, Sharon Powers, Yulia Moiseenko, Sarah Lyddan, Steve Humphreys

Director and producer: Ron Sossi

Playwright: Tadeusz Rozewicz

Set designer: Gary Guidinger

Costume designer: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg

Lighting designer: Derrick McDaniel

Sound designer: Martin Carrillo