Bravo, bravo, bravissimo! If I had to choose one theatre production, of those that I've seen so far this year in the UK and Poland, to watch again now, today, tonight, my choice, without a shadow of a doubt, would be Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever), Mariusz Grzegorzek's exhilarating extravaganza which was the first of the Diploma Shows to feature the 2018/19 contingent of Łódź Film School graduating actors. Leaping from gaiety to the grotesque, gleeful reality TV parody ("Nabrzmiałe probleeemy!") to haunting folk ballad expressionism, the show offered a rollercoaster ride through contemporary culture (and Polish history) that essentially provided all the shows you could require in one gorgeously baggy, unruly and inclusive package - one held together by the talent, commitment and energy of the young performers and by Grzegorzek's visionary genius.
The first of this year's three Diploma shows starring the 2019/20 graduating group, Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! (Don't Eat That, It's For Christmas!) continues the precedent set by Mebelki. Constructed without a text, through improvisation, research and an exchange of ideas with the actors, and including some of the same creative team - Tomasz Armada (costumes), Iza Połońska (vocal coaching) and Leszek Kołodziejski (music supervision) - Grzegorzek's latest provocation again mobilises a collage structure that mixes diverse dramatic scenes, song and dance interludes, the silly and the (very) serious.
The show is audience-inclusive from its opening moments, in which dynamic Dominik Mironiuk ushers us into the auditorium, where he serves as a magical combination of MC, cabaret artiste, preacher and hypnotist, first introducing us to his colleagues: Sylwia Gajdemska, Irmina Liszkowska (who also serves as the show's assistant director), Janek Napieralski, Wiktor Piechowski, Dorota Ptaszek, Aleksander Rudziński, Julia Szczepańska, Dominika Walo, and Michał Włodarczyk. As was the case in Mebelki, this 10-strong collective switch up and share roles throughout the performance, with identities helpfully indicated by velcro labels attached to Armada's marvellous white costumes, which variously suggest hazmat or space suit, straight jacket or hospital uniform.
If a distinctive feature of the previous show was its Polishness, with Czesław Niemen songs rubbing up against Disco Polo parody, then Nie jedz tego! - though somewhat more distilled - casts its net wider for its main reference point. Sure, Polish songs are sung and Prez Duda get namechecked (in a hilariously mournful dirge delivered by Włodarczyk) but the principal inspiration here comes from Skye Borgman's 2017 documentary Kidnapped in Plain Sight, about the abduction of Idaho 12-year-old Jan Broberg in the 1970s.
Grzegorzek and company use this text as a jumping-off point for an exploration of family dynamics (look how easily those "Matka" and "Ojciec" labels can be peeled off, after all) and social breakdown through the experiences of the kidnapped girl (Suzi, here), her siblings and manipulatable parents and the perpetrator (one Brajan - seldom a name to be trusted). Described as "too strange to seem real," the most sensational aspects of the Broberg case - from the culprit's Theorem-ish seduction of both of his victim's parents, to his convincing Jan that they were meant to marry and have a child who was prophesied to be the saviour of an alien planet - are preserved; indeed, a principal fascination of the show is the way it transforms real-life, documentary-derived material into theatrical phantasmagoria, mixing up genres from sci-fi to detective story under the wryly-deployed "Documentary Film" banner.
Grzegorzek is the kind of director who can get a mood to shift lightening fast, and here abrupt lighting changes and surprising musical cues whisk us from the playful to the deeply disturbing. Bringing different facets to the character, the actresses convey Suzi's confusion, trauma and fortitude; from Szczepańska's confrontation with alien apparitions pitched somewhere between Dr. Who and the Ku Klux Klan to a touching, simply staged moment in which Gajdemska beautifully performs YouTube "bathtub ukulele singer-songwriter" Abbey Glover's "Please Don't Go".
Around this through-line, the show throws several other elements into the mix, whether developing its concern with the mediatisation of crime through a very funny parody of a "Traffic Cops" TV series ("National Roads") or offering a memorable moment for Piechowski with his wonderfully rude accordion rendition of "Cipuleńka." Meanwhile, Daria Szymańska's distinctive choreography is at its most amazing in a powerful atomic interlude.
The actors modulate brilliantly, whether offering heightened physical clowning - dig Janek Napieralski's epic drunk display! - or achieving subtle, sensitive effects. If the end result is not so all encompassingly great, nor as galvanising in its transitions, as Mebelki, there are still more perverse pleasures and terrors here than can be taken in on one viewing. As the actors gather close to the audience for a cathartic and bewitchingly sung finale, you may find yourself reflecting that, while winter holidays come but once a year, Grzegorzek and company have produced a show that's for life, not just for Christmas.
The next performances of Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! take place from the 3rd to 17th October. Further information here.
Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska.
Reviews of Polish theatre:
The Nether (Jaracz Theatre),
Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki),
Slippery Words (Teatr Studyjny)