New weird America
Chico State Theatre Deptartment reworks Polish émigré’s twisted political satire for our twisted modern times
These are really weird times we’re living in. Bankers make billions betting on our debts and then get rewarded further with bonuses and bailouts. Meanwhile, the rest of us suckers sink beneath the weight of our inflated mortgages and tear one another down from opposite sides as our cowardly leaders stoke the fires with sound bites. Our only recourse? Put on creepy masks and occupy city parks together. Weird times, indeed.
It makes perfect sense then that we get something really weird from the Chico State Theatre Department for its first production of the spring semester. And this modern reworking of the 40-year-old political satire Vatzlav by Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek is pretty freakin’ bonkers.
Mrozek wrote his play as an allegory of his own journey as an emigrant in the ’50s and ’60s and the similarities of oppression he saw after leaving communist Eastern Europe for the free-enterprising West. His Vatzlav, a shipwrecked slave trying to take advantage of his newfound freedom and a new life on new shores, gets wrapped up in the many levels of corruption as he navigates Western civilization. For the Chico State version, director and theater professor William Johnson has tweaked the details to make Vatzlav “an escaped prisoner of the American Dream” and the shore onto which he washes is a place called Plutocrostan, a representation of the U.S. today, with its imbalance of power and wealth and attendant mess of economic, social and political problems.
I sat in on Monday night’s dress rehearsal as Johnson and his cast and crew did last-minute fine-tunings, and during the course of two-plus hours was treated to an irreverently dark production. A succession of characters (many in creepy-looking masks) came and went, including a chorus of occupying clowns, a couple of (literally) blood-sucking capitalists, a young woman-turned-stripper named Justice, a boy in a bear suit, a couple of bickering peasants living under the stage, a wizardly Oedipus and one sodomizing military general.
The raked stage built for the play is impressive, and scenic designer Daniel Shindler and his crew deserve major kudos for setting the scene. The massive wooden structure slopes upstage dramatically and covers nearly the entire Harlen Adams stage, not only creating more room for the actors but also the illusion of expansive depth. The visual worked especially well in the opening scene, when the shipwrecked Vatzlav (Janette Wallen) emerges from the blue waters of two long waves of cloth undulating at the top of the slope.
Wallen did nice frantic work as the scoundrel Vatzlav, talking her character in circles to justify his actions. In fact, the whole young cast should be commended for meeting the farcical challenge. I especially enjoyed Ernie Rosales as Bobbie Bat, the “good little boy” with the squeaky voice who was fun to watch as he set off on his own, turned himself into a bear and took on his blood-sucking parents.
For this sort of Theatre of the Absurd, there needs to be an audience to play off of to get the full measure of how well the farce succeeds, so it was hard to gauge in a mostly empty room during rehearsal.
Even with an audience though, I fear this might be a tough sell. Mileage may vary with many of the weirder vignettes (a head-scratching glimpse into the intimate life of a rich housewife and her pet poodle comes to mind). And there are plenty more WTF? scenes. Which is the point in this kind of absurd farce. But, unless you’re OK with sitting through a lot of gratuitous zaniness, this might not be your bag.
It was my bag, for the most part, and despite a few too many long-winded moments of circular logic the narrative is pretty simple to figure out. You know fairly quickly that every character is a representation of some facet of 21st century America-gone-wrong, and that Vatzlav is both playing and being corrupted by the system. From there, it’s just spotting the contemporary parallels beneath the surface of the farce, and joining the fun as the characters of Plutocrostan flaunt their perverseness—just as their real-life counterparts do.