The art of dialogue

Voices and impressions from Poland's Dialog Festival
A scene from Sarah Kane's Cleansed as staged in Wroclaw, Poland

THEATER Maybe there's no better way to grasp your own time and place than by leaving it — in this case, trading San Francisco for Wroclaw, Poland, and Pacific Standard Time for a whiplashing case of jet lag. Wroclaw was home base for a little more than a week during the recent Dialog Festival (Oct. 11–18;, which was in its seventh season as a major biennial international theater festival created and programmed by Krystyna Meissner, a force in Polish and European theater for decades.

Joining a cohort of Americans, including several from the Bay Area, most of whom had been invited to the festival by the Center for International Theatre Development (an organization with which I've recently become formally associated), we were treated to work by artists from Poland, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Rwanda, Estonia, Iran, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Hungary. The topic this year, "Violence makes the world go 'round," was a proposition answered variously and often ingeniously by the productions on offer. The best of these expertly delivered that consciousness-altering blow you want from theater or any art form, as well as much food for thought — not only about the reality of violence in the world today, but the place in it all of the artist, the individual, the public, the spectator, and the theater itself.

For now, one example will have to suffice: a staging of British playwright Sarah Kane's 1998 play, Cleansed, by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski. This was actually one of two separate stagings of the same play in the festival this year; the other was by renowned Dutch director Johan Simons, working with Germany's Münchner Kammerspiele, who offered three Kane plays in a single evening. (It was also one of two pieces from Warlikowski at the festival, the other being his latest work, Warsaw Cabaret.)

Warlikowski is widely known as one of the masters of the Polish theater today, and his staging of the Kane play is still in demand 12 years after its controversial premiere in 2001. Seeing this legendary production was an extraordinary opportunity, and its impact was in no way diminished by the hype.

Cleansed comprises a discrete set of scenes in which a sadistic "doctor" named Tinker perpetrates vicious humiliations and atrocities on a group of inmates. Among the latter is a grieving woman who has entered the doctor's wicked sanatorium to commune with the spirit of her dead brother, a heroin addict murdered gruesomely by Tinker in an early scene. There is also a gay couple whose commitment to each other is brutally tested by the awful interventions of Tinker.

Warlikowski's production unfolds as a harrowing yet gorgeously languid fever dream. Set on a small stage, with an institutional bathroom wall at the back, the strikingly crisp and potent images throughout distort in the reflective surfaces bounding the space. Often drowned in a shifting sea of garish light, accentuated with piercingly beautiful music (the songs derived from the text are sung in the original English), the stage nevertheless leaves ample room for brilliant performances. These deftly created characters and relationships speak eloquently to the deep compassion and understanding there throughout Kane's penetrating nightmare. (In a seductive and telling move, Warlikowski tacks on a monologue about desperate love, taken from Kane's Crave, at the outset of the evening.)

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