Bruno Schulz’s novel “The Street of Crocodiles” provided Theater Complicite with material for one of its most moving and riveting shows. The adaptation of the famed Polish writer’s stories by the Wroclawski Teatr Lalek, one of Europe’s oldest puppet theaters, is less successful and far more mystifying. Lacking both a plot and developed, individualized characters, “The Last Escape” instead offers abstract ideas enacted by both human actors and puppets. The show is performed in Polish, while a sidescreen provides supertitles so long and dense, one is hard-pressed to read them and also pay attention to the stage.
And even when there’s time for the supertitles, one reads lines like “Gathering all the illusions, the worldly approximations … picking them up like splinters of a mirror…” There is pretentious talk of “the Authentic” and what the “exegetists” said about it. Eventually, non-Polish speakers will likely decide to ignore the translations and allow the events and images onstage to work evocatively and atmospherically.
This is highly stylized surreal drama in the Eastern European avant-garde tradition of Witkiewicz and Kafka.
The central character, Joseph, played by a person (Kryzsztof Grebski), is alone in a room writing or drawing in a book, waiting for who knows what, meditating on time and memory. Out of boredom or loneliness, he conjures up his mother (sometimes a puppet, sometimes a person), his schooldays (three men with little desks hung around their necks speak from behind cardboard cutouts of children), and his dying father (a big, alarming puppet with white feathery hair and eyes that fly open).
Open books seem to flutter like birds (with twittering provided in the soundscape), a nurse plays the father puppet’s strings as if they were a harp, and doors twirl around while men in bowler hats enter and exit in a vaudevillian scene.
Surprisingly, and disappointingly, there’s not much puppetry. What there is seems conventional, both in look and in the way the puppets are manipulated, rarely creating those intensely focused magical moments when a puppet becomes a real character. The show seems overwhelmed by ideas not fully translated to the stage, in addition to the obvious translation challenges of fiction to drama, character to puppet, Polish to English.
The company moves to Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in Los Angeles (Nov. 9-11) and then to the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (Nov. 18-19).