By Lucia Frangione
It is quite something to sit in a dark room in a different country and watch someone pretend to be your Nonna, but speaking in Polish with an Italian accent. It’s also quite something to see Nonna hop onto a hospital bed and pleasure herself with your Dad’s feet…but perhaps I should start at the beginning.
A while back, under Amela Semic’s reign, the Playwrights Guild Of Canada organized a meet and greet for translators and Canadian playwrights and thanks to my agent, Catherine Knights, my play Espresso ended up in the sensitive hands of Ms Malgorzata Semil: one of Poland’s foremost translators. Though I don’t speak a word of Polish, I could tell by the meticulous and poetically sensitive questions, this was going to be a faithful translation. The play was picked up by Teatr Jeleniogorski then the same director, Malgorzata Bogajewska, brought the play to Teatr Powszechny: a three venue professional rep theatre in Warsaw. Because this is my first translation and European premier, I was able to land a Canada Council travel grant to attend.
I pack my bag full of breezy sundresses and five hundred pounds of books and board Sunwing airlines with the heaviest suitcase ever recorded. On my way to Warsaw I have a “one night” stop over in Paris.
What is a travel story to Paris without discussing the city’s infamous hospitality? The Roissybus express (“express” purely an ornamental word) took an hour and a half to get from the airport to downtown Paris. The next day at the exact same time, it takes three hours to get back out! As I fret on the hot bus, a slick haired Spanish businessman, getting shinier and shinier, winks and blows Tom Jones kisses, assuring me wherever I’m headed it’s not as beautiful as his hotel room in Barcelona…
Finally we arrive and I burst into the airport, frantically searching for Czech airlines with only an hour before my flight. I can’t see it. Can you imagine if I miss my own play after coming this far? Do I have the wrong terminal?! Thank God there’s an information desk! I am polite to the point of obsequious, asking for help from this two-legged stool of a woman behind the counter. This bursting at the buttons coiffed mascara eyed Cleopatra on a budget information snuffer…this staff member who is paid to help lost wayfarers, is haughtily annoyed at having to speak the vile little known language: English. She snaps, “You should have written it down!” “You should print out your ticket ahead of time!” “You should have never been born!” She also refuses to believe that Czech airlines exists, and if it does, it would be in terminal one. Also, she is quite sure nobody in their right mind would want to fly to “Varsovie”. I would not be surprised if she dreams of a Charles De Gaulle with no “arrivals” only “departures”: fast ejection of undesirable foreigners. She points roughly, “shuttle, shuttle!” So I scuttle out thanking her for being so terribly rude.
I burst into terminal one only to discover the two-legged stool has sent me to Air France at 4:30 instead of Air Czech at 2:30. By the time I shuttle back to terminal three (Czech airlines being just down the hallway from the info desk) my flight is gone and the next one is going to cost me seven hundred dollars one way?! No Ma’am. I go vigilante Velocity online and book a LOT Polish Air ticket for Four hundred. I spend the next twenty hours getting intimate with Charlie Du Galle’s entire anatomy, drinking eight dollar lattes and amusing the floor polishers with my 4 am yoga.
LOT airlines is amusingly low budget. Breakfast is a roll stuffed with chocolate hand crème. As I prepare to puke it up, a sign beside the toilet warns: “Splukawanie” “Don’t sit and flush at the same time”. The thought of some poor fellow’s testicular pain causing such a sign to have to be made…chuckles me right out of vomit mode.
Finally I arrive in Warsaw! Now four hundred dollars out of pocket I skip the taxi and drag my suitcase over the cobbled streets of Old Town to my hotel. I pass the opera school and hear a gorgeous aria floating out through a window. I carry my three hundred pound suitcase the rest of the way so I don’t interrupt it. Then I stop for a cup of tea and lemon, a bowl of bialy barszcz with a side of blood sausage, sauerkraut and pierogi. Divine!
The Solstice celebrations are on tonight and fireworks light arm linked lovers, all Midsummer Nights Dreamy with floral garlands. At Vern Theissen’s suggestion I stay at the gorgeous Hotel Regina and fall into the most extravagant bed for fourteen hours of sleep. I wake the next morning to find two scribbled notes by my bedside: translator Malgorzata Semil’s phone number and my pick up time from dramaturge Karolina Kapralska. I do not recall talking to these important theatre contacts. I hope I did not try to order a pizza from them.
The next day I meet black clad, sandaled, Malgorzata: think modern day Holy One. She’s the kind of artist who travels with a 3km radius of intelligence emanating from her body. Her light eyes sparkle with amusement when I reveal my complete ignorance about Poland, humanity and world history in general. Her tone is brusque, passionate, humble and full of efficient verbal snap shots. A salt and pepper streak of hair bandies about in the wind as she sniffs the air. I “ooh” and “ah” over the beauty of old town. She snickers. “It’s a movie set” she says. Old town was completely demolished in the war and rebuilt to look like the original in the late forties. It’s all “fake”. We cross the Jewish ghetto line. I say a silent prayer for my friend’s family massacred there. It starts to hit home when standing on the spot.
Malgorzata takes me through Warsaw’s entire history in five hours: complete with war, art, politics, horticulture and gastronomy. I am exhausted. She doesn’t seem daunted one bit. I adore her immediately. But I’m not sure if I have put her off with my naïveté. I mean, she even has to show me which room is the ladies because on the doors there aren’t the typical lady in a dress, boy in pants. There are mystery circles: am I the cross or the arrow? Damn, why didn’t I pay more attention in biology class?!
Over espresso she shares with me a turn of phrase she’s having difficulty translating. This is a gift to me, being able to contribute to the day. I think I may have even offered something useful. She gives me a little affectionate squeeze. Million bucks that squeeze.
I am handed off to a young curvy Bond Girl typing coolly on a Mac computer in the hotel lobby: black hair with a sharp hip fringe: how can this be Karolina? How can someone so young be the dramaturge/literary manager for such a huge regional theatre? Mind you back home we have Rachel Ditor, Heidi Taylor, Vicki Stroich, Lisa Ravensbergen…hm. Cool girls might just rule the dramaturgy universe. Brusque again. This must be a Polish thing. Okay Warsaw: I guess when you have had your city and your people completely decimated, suffer unspeakable atrocities and oppression of the worst kind for the majority of your history…the art of vapid small talk and flattery isn’t really a cultural priority. That’s fine. I’m very good at it. The only war I’ve ever known is getting to the front of the stage at a U2 concert.
Karolina takes me to the theatre; it’s in the Praga district, the only part of Warsaw that wasn’t bombed to rubble: the ghetto. Up until a few years ago it was a dangerous part of the city but now it’s being gentrified: old factories dotted with graffiti and bullet holes, now house hip galleries, clothing and jewelry designers and funky retro cafes. For instance, one day I turned down a sketchy run down alley and came upon an old smoke stack and brick building with several galleries including one called the Bochenska. I walked in thinking “This must be a local artist holed away…hey, they’re pretty good! Nice line quality! This would look great in my living room…get a little Ikea frame…” and I asked for how much it was. “Um…not for sale” the slick curator slinks past me, now watching to see I don’t shoplift the jewelry. I turn the corner and realize the fuller exhibit…an original collection of Oldrich Kulhanek. Yeah. No wonder I liked it.
Teatr Powszechny is a large venue with three stages, offices, some accommodations, a set shop, costume shop, everything all right there in this 1950s complex. It’s newly renovated and still smells like clean paint. My little artist apartment is down the hallway from the artistic director’s office. It gives me a bit of a funny feeling when I shower: hearing business conversations outside my door. “This is awfully casual of you, Lucia, to be naked and dripping wet in the middle of a production meeting!” That evening Karolina brings me in to see their big hit musical: Zly. She translates every scene into my ear and unfortunately I am so jet lagged and her whispers are so soothing, I fall asleep! She suggests at intermission I perhaps just go to bed. I agree.
The next day, afraid of the offense, I assure her the physicality of the actors was excellent and the costumes were terrific. Not much more I could tell without speaking the language with that particular Brechtian piece. And it didn’t need my praise. It has been running all year with full houses and will continue to.
The Polish theatre, from what I understand, runs shows for as long as it can sell the play. They also don’t open a show until it is ready. They keep rehearsing if it needs another week. They typically have sixty rehearsal days and it can be spread over several months. I suppose one could complain that a rehearsal period could lose momentum. On the other hand, with the extra time and the spread of time, there is the opportunity for ideas to settle. Theatres can afford to do this because they have actors in rep. Therefore, when the actors are rehearsing during the day they perform during the night. When they’re not in a show they do other duties for the theatre like teach and work the box office. I explain to Karolina our union doesn’t allow for this kind of employment integration. Canadian plays rehearse 18-24 days and run two to six weeks, actors get no unemployment insurance and spend their time endlessly searching for the next gig. She turns to me sharply, “Your union sucks!”
The next day I poke around Praga and then that evening Karolina, who has kindly elected to be my tour guide, takes me to a great little hole in the wall restaurant and then to see some modern Danish troupe at the dance festival. We follow that with some fruited pierogi and coffee. I really enjoy her company. I ask her a great deal about the audience in Warsaw, who are they? The War is ever present with monuments around every corner but many of them were built in the last forty years. Under communist rule, the authorities didn’t want acknowledgement of the war, from what I understand. One of the most profound things Karolina said was something along the lines of: the generation that survived the war, lived the rest of their lives in shock. Their children were too traumatized to speak of the war, the Jewish Holocaust, all of it. They just tried to rebuild and move forward. It’s their children, the third generation, who are just now able to start to process it, acknowledge it, mourn it.
Warsaw has a sense of optimism. Poland has the fastest growing economy in all of Europe. But that said, it started from such a low point, it will still take decades to catch up to everyone else. It is also a very Catholic and conservative country from what I understand. Abortion is illegal and right now there’s a great deal of controversy over the rights of common-law couples, somehow a threat to the institution of marriage. Never mind gay marriage.
The following day I meet Ewa Cichocka at the Canadian Embassy. It’s a beautiful big building but one gets the feeling that massive cuts have been made by the smiling Prime Minister in the big picture near the front desk. The embassy is understaffed and overbooked and Ewa squeezes a meeting with me into the “Beaver Room”. I’m sure it is a replica of the basement I first played “spin the bottle” in as a young teen: it is decorated with trophies, a dated bar, sports banners, smokers cutting through the patio for a quick drag. But Ewa is lovely and classy. And she says: “Frangione? Do you know Mary Lou and Lucinda?” Indeed. Ewa lived on the same street as my Zio Ross and assuredly met my Dad and Nonna and was a close childhood friend of two of my cousins! Small world, eh? She is excited to come out and see Espresso because it is based loosely on my Dad’s car accident and some of the family dynamics around it she will recognize.
After my meeting with Ewa I head over to the MOMA. In it I discover a tremendous amount of contemporary art that is a specific outcry and response to the oppression of the Catholic church. A lot of anger is slashed across the walls.
My play Espresso is about an Italian Catholic family whose patriarch has a terrible car accident and lies on the brink of life and death. Three women stand vigil over him: his mother, his second wife and his daughter. While these women strain under their immense grief and fear as they wait for the results of his operation, they unravel family secrets, they pray to whatever God they think may exist or not, they contemplate the life lived and the love lost and their place as women in this culture, in this religion, in this family. An erotic Christ figure comes to each of them during their time of grief and woos them with the Song Of Solomon into a place of spiritual and sexual healing, a place of hope, a place of remembrance that this too shall pass and the season of singing shall come.
As I look at this harsh angry necessary display of art, I am so thankful I have written Espresso and can offer the Polish audience an alternative response to religion that is also challenging and yet offers some hope through reclamation.
Oh yes, I have some lofty thoughts about myself this afternoon.
Finally the night has come for me to see my play! Malgorzata Semil has warned me that a few of Amante’s lines have been cut, some of the Song of Solomon. I anticipate this. In Canada and places like the USA, Australia, Britain…playwrights are given artistic respect and authority over the words they put on the page. Nobody can edit, change or add to a script without the author’s approval. In Europe it’s a different story and each country operates under its own set of rules. Warsaw is notoriously a “director’s theatre” which means a director can do what they want with your script without your permission. Because Espresso is a solid critically acclaimed script and has been so successful in Canada, I did not anticipate a lot of change. But you never know. I remember the internationally acclaimed author, Brad Fraser, telling me he sat down (Berlin?) to watch one of his premiers and the director sat down next to him, quite pleased with himself: I fixed your ending for you. It’s much better now.
The theatre has three Canadian authors in its season: George F. Walker, Daniel Danis and me.
I meet the actors first and they are nervous to see me. Eliza says, in her decent English: “When you got off the plane I said to my husband, I can feel it, the REAL Rosa is here!” I didn’t think about it before but I guess it would be a little intimidating. Not only did I write the play but I performed the role. She is adorable and beautiful and fluttery and gregarious, some actress traits are truly universal. The actor, Mikhal, is young and loping and his English falters shyly. Handsome guy in an off-beat kind of way. They collectively give me a C.D. of Chopin with champagne all round. I am really touched by the warm welcome. The artistic director, Jan Buchwald, comes down with the assistant AD, Maria Dalczynska. Malgorzata and Karolina join me for the play. The director, Malgorzata Bogajewska is sadly out of town so I don’t get to meet her. Apparently Espresso is selling well and is sold out tonight and for the rest of the weekend.
The play starts with Rosa (played by Eliza) in her underwear, drinking in a white institution-like bedroom. Again, cool set and sound design. She’s lovely and sensuous, brave and free with her body. Eliza and Mikhal connect well on stage. Mikhal is a disciplined and attentive listener, which in my opinion is more important than being a good talker, both onstage and off. He supports Eliza with his capacity for generosity on stage and the director really understands the idea behind the dueling narrators: Amante is propelling the story forward in order to get Rosa to face the reality of what has happened in the past. I start out thrilled and delighted with what I see.
I don’t speak a word of Polish but already I note that the director has cut out the Song Of Solomon and the visitations of Amante that are the Erotic Christ. In fact, she has cut out whole monologues. Oh oh. He’s left with very little to do except listen to Rosa and once in a while take over the narration but the clarity of his identity is compromised. I feel bad for the actor: who is he if he isn’t Christ? Is he some sort of dark voice in her head, inviting her to revisit this traumatic story over and over again? The whole tone of the play takes on a sad helplessness to it with no energy of healing or hope coming in. It’s too bad: here’s this compassionate sexy man sitting there twiddling his thumbs inert while Rosa…is masturbating with a cello. What? Have they added lines to explain why this is happening? Hm… then the cello is put away and never seen again.
Here comes one of my favorite scenes: based on a true story. It was when Papa came to see me. I had just moved to the city and had things in boxes. He surprised me with a visit; I was so poor I had nothing to eat. He filled my fridge and cupboards with food, helped me move in, then he cooked for me every night for a week. He ended the week with a heart felt promise, “Whatever I can do, I will do. Even if I only got one piece of bread left, you and me, we break it in half.” This is the one moment in the play where we really see how much Rosa loves her Papa. However, in the Polish version, though wonderfully playful, it seems to end with the bread breaking moment as a kind of sexual joke by Dad and he grapples her physically and she beats him off angrily. Is it my imagination or…
In my play, Amante plays a special role with Nonna in particular. Nonna is a widow, she was married at 13, she has had a hard life full of struggle and she has never known what it is like to be a young bride, to be gently wooed. While in the midst of her grief over her son, the erotic Christ comes to her sensually and offers her a moment of spiritual transportation into a world she’s never known. He loves her in a way she hasn’t been loved as a gift to her, and though shocked at first, she accepts it and is transformed. In the Polish version, the wooing is hard to follow…it is kind of rough and oddly “disco” comical…
The second main visitation of the sensual Christ comes when Nonna rubs her dying son’s feet with oil and garlic, hoping it will help heal him from the ground up. Because of the newness in her, she timidly touches her son’s feet for the first time since he was a boy. It’s a healing beautiful moment in the play. And then the sensual Christ comes to her and she’s off on another mystical experience. However, because this production’s Amante is gutted, he doesn’t come woo her and therefore her sexual experience stays focused on her son’s feet. I watch in horror as she expresses her longing, not to a Christ figure, but to her son, climbing up on the hospital bed and grinding her pelvis into his toes.
It is at this point I look down at my program in tears, and remember all the theatre’s advertising and the program itself has focused very much on this play being autobiographical and based on events that happened with my family. My blood runs cold with shame as I think of Ewa coming out to see it. What if my family hears about this? How can I ever explain the shame I have brought them?
The rest of the show plays out with all its death and grief and because there is no Divine Christ it does not have a hopeful ending. Rosa instead, slumps against the wall, lost in an endless cycle of family sexual dysfunction. The audience doesn’t have much emotional response to the show. In the original they laughed their heads off and also were tearful and then leapt to their feet at the end. But in this production the tension is lost. Rosa is directed to release the tension far too often with outbursts of tears and anger. As the saying goes: if you cry, the audience doesn’t have to. Also because so much of Amante is missing, there is no tug of war over despair and hope. Despair wins hands down. The long sequences of emotional release slow the play down by at least ten to fifteen minutes. In our production we only allowed one emotional outburst: at the climax. We did the show originally in one hour and forty five minutes without any cuts.
Immediately after the show I am lead up to the stage for excruciating bows. We sit down and Eliza turns to me in front of everyone and asks, “I want to know what the playwright thinks of the show!” This is the moment I am very thankful for my skills regarding flattery. I am sure I found something true and kind to say without also saying “My Papa is rolling over in his grave right now.” Then I answer faltering questions from the audience that Malgorzata translates. I am trying like hell to hide my devastation because the actors worked very hard up there and did a lovely job. During the talk back the actors admit they had a hard time in rehearsals understanding Amante.
We go out for drinks. On the walk up to the pub Malgorzata asks quietly, “So…what did you think?” And I’m afraid I confide in her rather completely. I just spew all my horror into her poor ears. We sit down and Eliza seems nervous and defensive, I guess picking up on my energy despite my third attempt to praise her. She orders me vodka and cold herring, which is terrific. Then she defends the artistic choices: the original play was far too long they had no choice but to cut it…nobody reads the Song Of Solomon here in Poland so it didn’t make sense…the male actor is young…the cello was an excellent idea and meant a lot to her, and the idea of it is much more accessible…in Poland the director is God and playwrights need to make room for artistic license…all of that. I drink two shots of vodka and nod.
That night I write to my agent a frantic reactionary “oh my God” email. Cathy, knowing we’re both rather helpless, does what she can by making a few inquiries, but ultimately I imagine she sighs, well acquainted with a playwright’s pain. She takes a little sip of her cocktail from her lanai in the sunset as she reads my email then hits “delete” in the way that only someone from Toronto can hit “delete”.
I write to some of my playwright friends for advice. Most do not answer. Aaron Bushkowsky writes “feet up the vagina?! Why didn’t I think of that? That’s going in my next play!” Kevin Kerr kindly writes “Oh Lucia!” and expresses his horror and sympathy. Vern Thiessen suggests I laugh it off if I can. None of the female playwrights respond at all.
The next day I carefully ask Karolina to have the incest removed from the show to protect my family’s name. She is surprised. “What incest”? I say, “When the Dad gropes Rosa after the sexual joke and when Nonna sticks her son’s feet into her crotch.” She squints in that Bond Girl kind of way. She understands how the Nonna scene can be interpreted as sexual but she also suggests that Canadians aren’t as affectionate with their children as Polish people are and maybe I was reading something into the play that was not intended. She says in Poland, incest isn’t assumed because “it doesn’t happen here”.
I praise the things about the production that I like, leaving on a positive note. Everyone’s intentions have been good, and Karolina has been so kind to me. If it wasn’t for the fact that the play was going to run at least another year I would not have commented at all. Why? Because I’m not a precious sucky controlling playwright. I’ve written twenty plays and have seen all sorts of atrocities and glories. I am stoic. It hurts my pride to complain.
Well. Let’s just leave it behind now. I am about to fly out of Warsaw and spend a week in Paris for the first time in my life. I have a meeting with the Canadian Cultural Centre the next morning there and then my gorgeous lover is flying in from Toronto and meeting me at the Café de la Paix later in the afternoon. How romantic! I’m staying at a sweet little apartment in Ledru Rollin I swapped for free with young Aurelie for my West End apartment in Vancouver. Life is beautiful. Karolina drops me off at the airport with two and a half hours flex time. I’m not missing another flight!
I stroll up to Czech airlines and say “Lucia Frangione for 2:30pm to Paris please.” The lady (it’s always a lady with a peevish French roll, why, why?!) says “You have no booking and the flight is sold out.” What?! Oh yes I do have a booking, here is my confirmation number. She checks. “You missed your outgoing flight.” “Yes.” “When you miss an outgoing flight your return flight is immediately cancelled. All airlines do this.” (unspoken, she adds, “You dork”.)
I rush to Air France, all flights are cancelled that day. British Airlines. Hungary, Baltic, LOT, Lufthansa, you name it. They’re all full because of the Air France re-bookings. For the next two hours I frantically search the internet and all airline ticket booths for any remote sort of weird connection through Milan or Hamburg or London that will be less than a thousand dollars. What about my meeting with the cultural centre that took months to set up? What about poor Alex who is flying across the Atlantic right now to meet me at the café and he doesn’t have keys to our apartment?! What about the fact that I’m a single Mom and don’t have this kind of money to lose?!
I head downstairs in full defeat now and ask the information desk about trains. She is friendly. Her hair is long and blonde and flowing. She’s almost sporty and I almost propose marriage when she says, “You can take a train to Lodz and there you catch the connection to Paris. It’s an overnight express that will run through Berlin and it will be eighteen hours long and get you there by 10am.” My meeting is 11am but she assures me the trains are Mussolini true. And it costs less than three hundred Canadian. Okay. I can do that. I lug my mammoth suitcase onto the bus to the train station downtown Warsaw. I confirm again with the ticket agent there. Another nice train lady. “Oh yes, take the train to Lodz and the 6:30pm connection to Paris from there.” She smiles warmly. I say “thank you for being so kind and understanding how confusing it is for tourists. I really appreciate it.”
The Warsaw train station is a nightmare. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s rush hour and people are crammed into platforms, shoulder to shoulder, dripping with sweat and tripping and swearing over my suitcase. I actually get panicky and claustrophobic. It smells like piss, B.O. and petroleum jelly donuts. I stand there in that state for an hour and a half waiting for my train. But that’s okay, because I’m going to get to Paris. The train for Lodz arrives on time, I confirm it’s the right train, oh yes, and I’m on. We chug very slowly out of Warsaw through the country and an hour and a half later arrive at Lodz.
The train station at Lodz looks like the saggy ass end of Moscow, circa 1991. Graffiti covers communist era looming boxy apartments. It’s so empty I wonder if perhaps I have missed the Rapture. I enter, grossly out of place in my bright orange floral sundress and sparkly sparkle sandals. A small line of proletariats are waiting at the rinky dinky ticky-wicky, commuting home from work.
I finally get to the window and immediately know I’m in trouble when I see Olga in a gray sweater hunched over ancient equipment. “A ticket to Paris…please?” She shakes her head, hot and bothered, she doesn’t speak English. “Paris, Paris at 6:30?” A woman starts to giggle behind me in sympathy, “oh dear, there’s no connection to Paris from Lodz, nothing connects from Lodz, there’s been a horrible mistake. And there are no more outgoing trains tonight, not even back to Warsaw. This is the end of the line.” I stumble away at a complete loss now. My phone is dead, I’m stuck in God knows where, nobody knows I’m here and I’m not getting to Paris.
Seeing my tragic face, half the line up immediately get on their cell phones and work frantically, each of them checking planes, trains and automobiles for me. One kind young man in particular, Mateusz Cwiklinski, stays with me for two hours, clicking on his incongruently savvy lap top, iPad and cell phone, calling friends and airports and hotels…and sets me up for a four hundred dollar flight to Paris through Warsaw by train out of Lodz the next morning and a hotel room at the Grande. He transports me safely and kindly, I offer to pay him, he refuses. Just a nice guy. A very nice guy. Today he represents the people of Poland. I love the people of Poland. The hotel Grande is very Blanche Dubois and could really use one huge Chinese paper lantern. But like Blanche, I kind of love her. Lodz may seem frightening from the train station but the city itself seems really vibrant, full of texture. I hop across the street for dinner and it’s serving traditional Polish food. I order sauerkraut soup and some kind of chicken and a glass of wine. It’s fantastic, like all the food I’ve had here.
Suddenly, an old inebriated man with wolf light eyes and bristled white hair plunks his girth across from me at the table. I gasp. His voice is low and thick with drink. He stares me in the eye and asks:
“When we write, should we tell the truth?”
I look up at the waiter, he mimes a question as to whether I’m okay, I nod. I mean honestly, how could I say no to this particularly poetic moment? I say to the old man,
“When we write, we must always tell the truth. We must risk our careers every time.”
The old man nods. He says “A privilege to get wise words from a woman so beautiful. The horror I have seen in Poland. The death…”
“Nobody wants the truth!” He yells!
Then he softens. “Hemmingway is my hero. They didn’t like what he had to say either, but he told the truth. I want to write like Hemmingway. But instead, what I do…what I do is make eggs like Hemmingway. Eggs with bacon. How should I write the truth?”
I take a reflective bite of my chicken. Wash it down with wine.
“Well…you must…write your dreams. And you must write your nightmares. Your truth is there. People will do what they will with it.” He nods with a relatively graceful exit and heads to the corner of the empty restaurant to sit alone once more with his vodka.
As I head back to the arms of Blanche, with her twin bed and her four locks on the door…I realize I’m on a Polish director’s walk of fame. I sidestep Polanski’s star. I genuflect towards Kieslowski’s.
The next day I take a taxi to get to the train to get to the bus to get to the airport to get to the shuttle to get to the infamous Roissybus to walk with my three hundred pound suitcase to the café to see…only three hours late…my beautiful Alex, sipping a glass of white wine. How can he look so crisp and clean having travelled all day? Why is he so unnecessarily handsome, stabbing those little expensive olives with that little expensive tooth pick? I don’t need him to be handsome. I just need him to speak French and carry my suitcase. Which he does. I smell like a well loved eighties sofa bed. He doesn’t mention this. He just kisses me.
This is our first time traveling together. I could not have chosen a better companion: he’s fluent French, a certified wine expert, a professional photographer, has studied art history, loves to cook and is super friendly, witty and easy going. He’s one of those people who can work both sides of the brain really well. He has such a wide spectrum of knowledge and he’s humble about it so I was constantly dumbfounded when things would come up like the fact he speaks a bit of Malinke, he’s an expert organic composter, he taught educational theatre in the Philippines, he’s a certified sailor and scuba diver. He can name every painting of significance in the Louvre…what?!
After several days of traveling with Mr. Wonderpants I am starting to feel downright stupid. I get a bit belligerent about it after a while. He sighs, rightfully annoyed with my little self pity fit. He reminds me that I’m wise and intuitive and creative and I say “oh those are all very nice words for “uneducated”.”
“Lucia, you’re a published writer, you work internationally! How can you think you’re not smart?!” And I sulk: yeah, me and my little sick incest play. Yeah. That’s going to tour the world and make millions. Time for a croissant.
As the days progress I do see that he’s right: he has a broad spectrum of knowledge but mine is very focused. I can speak eloquently about theatre, parenting, Canadian history, religion and ovulation. Something else I notice is, at the end of the day, when we each log onto our computers, he always checks my Facebook profile page to see if I have written anything about us or posted any pictures. I’m not sure why, maybe to see if I have revealed him? It is true. I do not ask his permission to speak about him. I just operate with the idea that I speak about him respectfully and lovingly and do not reveal anything that is deeply personal about him. But with that certainly comes an assumption, doesn’t it? That I know what is deeply personal about him. That I have a right to make him public. In fact, I’m doing it right now.
And did I ask my family members if I could write something fictional, loosely based on their personalities and some real events? No. Have any of them even seen the play or read it? No. Have I asked Malgorzata or Karolina or Eliza and Mikhal and Mateusz if I can write about them too? No.
How can I be angry with Malgorzata Bogajewska’s freedom with my text if I also take such great artistic license with my own work?
I guess it boils down to intent. All of it. I intend to honor these people (okay, maybe not the two-legged stool woman) and I have to hope it comes across in the writing. Did the direction of Espresso intend to honor the original ideas?
I do not know the answer to this artistic question of license. I do know that any theatre production, much like my journey into Poland and back, is a kind of birth. With birth comes a lot of screaming and often, but not always, results in new life. I do know this: theatre Powszechny is doing a lot of exciting work and Poland is full of magic. Despite this strange and eventful journey for me, I will hop on that plane again, I will take that bus, train and shuttle and I will thrust my baby play into the arms of another director and say “raise it the way you see fit,” and hope for the best.