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The Polish Pugilist

17 Aug

Knockout On All Floors or Now I Wanna Be Your Dog & Other Immigrant Tales

“I would have killed you if you had done the same thing in the third scene as in the first two,” I told Jeremey Catterton, actor, director and producer, as he stood sweating in his boxing shorts after the preview performance of The Polish Pugilist. “I know,” he beamed, “it’s all payoff, big beautiful payoff.” It is, The Polish Pugilist is all about the payoff, which is surprisingly traditional given the experimental work that Catterton produces. It doesn’t feel all that traditional though; described as a “postdramatic performance triptych”, the first scenes take you through a Polish immigrant’s gritty life in turn of the century Chicago while the final scene is the payoff centerpiece, to take the art metaphor further, a gloriously physical rendition of George Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s flanked by those miserable scenarios straight out of Ben Shahn.

The Polish Pugilist uses a text culled from the storyline of Upton Sinclair’expose of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, the first Rocky movie, a never-ending list of Polack jokes and Catterton’s own poetry, all mixed together in order to create the “postdramatic” sense of the production- that there are multiple stories that comment on eachother. The stories may comment on eachother almost too well, despite Catterton and his able collaborators switching between accents to indicate which reference source is being enacted, there is a emergent narrative is familiar. Catterton as Leshak Shapanski emigrates from Poland to the United States to be with his family, Claire Monesterio and Abbie Williams, who portrays his wife Oona. Musician Jacob Grun (Me & My Arrow) plays George O’Connell, boss, boxing promoter and all-around archetypal bad guy while Mike Rylander takes on the role of the champion boxer, “The Truth”. They work together to tell this immigrant’s tale of privation, strife, indignity and injustice (one, which Catterton pointed out in the talk-back afterwards, is still a relevant theme if you change languages and skin colors) across three different floors of the performance space.

The “Coming to America” tale isn’t so straightforwardly told and general linearity doesn’t mean that there isn’t lots of charachter-shifting and aside moments, cues for song-and-dance scenarios taken from Rocky– “Why do you do this? Because I can’t sing or dance.”- and a barrage of Polack jokes that become more and more painful to both the cast and audience as they are nonchalantly flung, stand up comedy-style, about stage. These may be recognizable elements, but what is “post-“ about them is their undifferentiated and fluid sources- everyone tells Polack jokes, even the actors playing Polish characters, actors break into personal narratives, because in a Catterton production, there are not just actors playing characters, but actors playing themselves as actors playing characters. It is a shift that forces the personal to become at the disposal to the characters in the narrative and when used conscientiously as it is here, is a powerful boost to the authentic experience of theatre. Thus, Rylander’s broad but keen humor and larger-than-life delivery is critical to “The Truth”, Grun playing guitar in the production is no surprise, but that his parents are Czech immigrants and his mother a psychologist who wants to write a book titled “I’m an Immigrant, Not an Idiot” have a direct bearing on the presentation at hand.

The best reasons to go to The Polish Pugilist are those small details that add up to bigger ideas, the slapstick moments that carry deeper implications. The best challenge is the presence of Paula MacDonald, American Sign Language interpreter who is present and signing throughout the play. Her presence becomes increasingly insistent and at the points when you feel like you really must know what she is signing in order to carry on, unless you know ASL of course, you will be lost. That feeling of a lack of accessibility is crucial to the context of the immigrant experience and a powerful way of communicating that. It is, in a way, amazing what a simple presence can do to shape a story, but if there is anything to be taken from being in the audience of The Polish Pugilist, from the characters, from the actors portraying the characters of The Polish Pugilist, it is that we all show up with what we have, and fight for what we need. Postdramatic as the performance may be, that fight is elemental.

The Polish Pugilist runs Thursday, Friday & Saturday this week and next, August 19-28 at 8pm. Standing tickets are $15, seated $25, with a special offer this Friday & Saturday, 2 standing tickets for $20. E-mail for more information, or check out the Facebook event.

Disclaimer: I was a member of the Lamb Lays with Lion company from 2007 until earlier this year, working with Catterton, who was Artistic Director. I also work on the Clapperclaw Festival of the Arts with Catterton and co-producer Kristina Perkins. If I didn’t like The Polish Pugilist, though, I would tell you. Jeremey knows that.

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