A minimal set cordoned off by what could be Soviet-era caution tape confines the four members of the Theatre of the Eighth Day troupe in The Files, an epistolary play made up of text adapted from the actors’ personal correspondence and, most intriguingly, from the notes kept on them by the police during Poland’s Communist regime.
Reviewed by Meg van Huygen
After opening with a black-and-white animated history (Terry Gilliam-style), the actors—playing themselves from the 1970s—take us chronologically through the events that comprise their oppression-defying oeuvre. The actors’ old letters to one another are read in charmingly accented English; “authority” voices and dark glasses are adopted for the official communiqués penned by the government spies attempting to infiltrate the troupe. A lot of humor comes from the actors’ double-takes as they hear themselves described from the police’s point of view. At one point, the codenames of the spies are read by all four actors simultaneously, in a strange, poem-like drone, evoking the strange anthems of Cold War's art-suppressing decades. The only woman in the troupe, Ewa Wojciak, suggests the “mother computer” of a thousand dystopian films. Curious to note are the actors’ huge smiles throughout, as they change from “Ah, we were so young!” laughs to bittersweet grins of regret.
We’re used to films and documentaries covering this period by presenting the gray, bleak world of Communist rule, so we’re unprepared for the humorous excerpts from the Theater of the Eighth Day’s contemporary work performed throughout. Moments of chaotic clowning are punctuated with sudden violence and silly verse by the three male members (and with particular hilarity and gravity by Tadeusz Janiszewski).
The Files is nothing more than four people sitting in front of microphones, reading 40-year-old government telegrams. But as they get you on their wavelength, a compelling mental picture forms of young, fearless artists who rebel not with IEDs or flaming cocktails but with thoughts, ideals, art, and sometimes nonsense. The play ends very effectively with Wojciak singing in Polish along with a projection of her 19-year-old self. Now, Wojciak is overcome by emotion halfway through, but her past voice continues to sing on in a clear, brave voice that no government document could censor, temper, or still.
The Files is performed weekly at the 59E59 Theaters as part of Made In Poland: A Festival of New Polish Plays, which runs through November 30th.
The Files (1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission)
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, Manhattan)
Performances: October 22nd - November 9th
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