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A Couple of Poor English-Speaking Romanians

Grzegorz Sokól, New York

The New York premiere of "A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians" rips the text out of its Polish context, and the author from her halo as "queen of young Polish writers".

Fot. Jan Zamoyski / AG
Dorota Maslowska at
the popular Cafe Bajka
in Warsaw, 13.11.2008

The play is the tale of two Warsaw partygoers, high on drugs, who escape from reality. They hitchhike down Polish highway B, presenting themselves as a couple of young Romanians. This story works out wonderfully in its New York staging.  Set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, it ceases to be a story of Poland's national shortcomings in its early transition to capitalism. Rather it becomes a bitter satire on the older capitalism of consumerism, the homeland of which is precisely America.

This production of the theater group, the East River Commedia, and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, which opened this past Friday, maintains an atmosphere of independent, low budget theater.  This fits the text. The American audience, unable to distinguish Poland so well from Romania, is not engaging in critical introspection, but are coming to a play by an unknown young writer from Eastern Europe.  The performance is in this dimension lighter than it would be in Poland.

The actors are playing expressively, not pursuing realism where there is none.  In the second act, in which the intoxicated "Romanians" reveal themselves as an unemployed single mother and the actor who plays Father Ted in a television soap opera, the spirit of the grotesque does not leave the stage.  Director Paul Bargetto (who has previously directed Mrozek, among others) also uses video in the breaks between scenes on two television screens placed on stage, rolling bits of commercials, soap operas, and the news. These media images create a footbridge between the Polish and American contexts, and in this way the director makes up for some of the Polish linguistic gestures that are necessarily lost in translation.

Benjamin Paloff's translation works oddly well, though, to locate what is untranslatable in Maslowska's language on a new map and to find new meanings.  The iconic Polish Fiat 500 becomes a Chevy Cavalier (while the town of Ostróda remains simply, "Ostroda"), and the tragicomic half-understood challenge of the reality of a couple of Romanians speaks to the audience, not so much as derision at the Polish inferiority complex and xenophobia, but as a variation on the themes of "Bonnie and Clyde" and Borat.

"In the Polish theater I'm always looking for the humor hidden in the darkest shadows of the spirit, but this very contemporary text has something more in it," the director says. "Like a mirror reflecting the American culture of consumption and television back on us - the particular brands of goods that the characters mention as well as the impulse that drives them in the nihilistic pursuit of destruction are well known to us. I only had trouble with the soap opera character of a priest-hero. To relay this specifically Polish element, an American ensemble of actors filmed their own version of the popular Polish soap opera, 'The Presbytery'."

"A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians" was Maslowska's theater debut in 2006, commissioned by the leading modern theater company, TR Warszawa.  It has been staged in cities including London, Chicago, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Oberhausen, Toulouse, Göteborg, on Sakhalin Island, as well as in Sydney.

A Conversation with Dorota Maslowska:

Grzegorz Sokól: At home your texts appear and are read as being "very Polish."  How, in your opinion, does "A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians" work in translation?

Dorota Maslowska: It's always seemed to me that this text is very much about Poland, but I am surprised at how it has completely disappeared in Poland, but it continues to play abroad.  It was my theater debut, written by a prose writer, so it reads well and is very attractive to directors sitting alone at home with the text, but then they realize that it is hard to present on stage, so various adaptations have come about. After seeing the New York version, I have the impression that the jokes, for example, that bring an instant reaction in Polish are complicated by the grammar in translation and have to be explained a bit. Beyond this, though, a couple of things seem to be absolutely universal. Very often I've heard from actors in completely different parts of the world, "that is precisely about me."

GS: Today, when America is increasingly feeling its own decline, do you think New York as a city is in the shadow of Berlin and London?

DM: I love America and New York. It's my favorite city in the world.  Its mythology still works on me, even though the intensity and density of everything here has something very apocalyptic in it – its excess is always on the brink of disaster.

There are a dozen women writers like me in every Starbucks. Because of this sense that everything drowns in the sea of everything, I can take a breath from my own persona and feel terribly unimportant.

Gazeta Wyborcza