La Luna

Teatr Cogitatur

at the Chopin Theatre

For the past 15 years Zygmunt Dyrkacz has been presenting international experimental theater at the scrappy Chopin Theatre, including performances by Poland’s astonishing Teatr Cogitatur. Despite more than two decades of international acclaim, the troupe had never appeared in this country until Dyrkacz brought it here to present Aztec Hotel in 2003. Its most recent nearly wordless show, La Luna, will likely draw large Polish-speaking crowds, as have its past productions. But this is a piece every experimental director should see for its masterful demonstration of theatrical economy. In true Grotowski “poor theatre” fashion, the company uses only the barest means: a few plain costumes, a handful of props, a rolling piece of scaffolding, a fog machine, a dozen lighting instruments. But they’re employed so judiciously that the boxy, impersonal Chopin is transformed into a shifting dreamscape from which mesmerizing images emerge only to disappear into seemingly fathomless depths.

Polish history and politics played a role in the ad hoc partnership between Dyrkacz and Teatr Cogitatur. Dyrkacz, a biologist, left Poland in February 1980 on an exchange visa to join researchers at Michigan State University looking for a way to ward off the invasion of Argentinean killer bees. In December of 1981 the Polish government declared martial law, and Dyrkacz decided he’d never go back. After working several more years as a geneticist, he started a construction business. Director-writer Witold Izdebski also formed Teatr Cogitatur in 1981, in Katowice. But the decade that followed the establishment of martial law was a difficult one for the city’s burgeoning theater scene: though the company was making a name for itself, it seemed its work would never reach America.

By 1989, at the same time that Solidarity revolutionized and freed communist Poland, Dyrkacz had sold his business, which gave him the capital to turn bohemian. When he bought the building facing the Polish Triangle, he saw creating communities as part of his mission–not only drawing on the Polish-American audience in the neighborhood but also bringing together Wicker Park’s fringe artists. Importing groups like Teatr Cogitatur does both.

Izdebski’s La Luna, which was originally titled Tribute to Expressionism, presents a dark, inviting, unstable world. It opens with a figure center stage, dimly lit from above, holding a newspaper and swaying absently to jaunty accordion strains. All that’s visible of her is a long, lacy white skirt–but after a few moments she lowers the newspaper to reveal that she is in fact a dour-looking shirtless man. In an instant he disappears into a blackness so total you can’t see your hand in front of your face. For the next 45 minutes figures break the surface of this darkness for 15 or 20 seconds at a time, just long enough to enact some enigmatic private ritual–slipping on a pair of pink panties under a clingy black dress, throwing wine in a mannequin’s face, blowing dust from an open palm.

Although the piece has no discernible narrative, it suggests a group of struggling bohemians banding together against unnamed menacing forces. “We were tramps, geniuses, and drunkards,” one woman says. “We loved life, and we drank wine.” This kind of overt content, whether visual or verbal–a trumpeter tearing through a jazz solo outside a bar, a group of urbanites on a stalled subway car–flattens the work to something bordering on cliche. But there are only a handful of such moments: most of the time the performers, who are either stuffed into cramped boxes far upstage or isolated in pools of light downstage, only half emerge into the light of meaning. Tomasz Kalwak’s trance-jazz score is saturated with strange echoes and gurgling rumbles, making it sound as though the theater were descending to some enormous depth.

La Luna is theatrical magic of the simplest and most evocative kind. You wonder how such intricate images–a man swinging from a noose, another hanging upside down from some scaffolding–can appear silently out of nowhere within a few seconds. The six actors, who can all apparently see perfectly in the dark, convey rich if mysterious inner lives. Trying to decode the piece’s many mysteries is futile, in part because there’s not enough international performance in Chicago to understand its context and precedents. Dyrkacz is working on that: he’s not only building a local arts community but creating a tiny global one too.

When: Through 9/4: Sat 8 PM, Sun 4 PM

Where: Chopin Theatre

Price: $18-$25

Info: 773-278-1500