Reviewed by Martin Denton
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was a theorist as well as a playwright. He wrote (in An Introduction to Pure Form in the Theatre), "When leaving the theatre, one should have the impression that one wakes up from a strange dream in which the most trite things have the elusive, deep charm characteristic of dreams, not comparable to anything."
Thanks to the meticulous efforts of Jeffrey A. Lewonczyk and his collaborators, audiences are getting a rare opportunity to witness Witkiewicz's unorthodox theatrical vision, at the Brick Theatre in Brooklyn. And, indeed, Lewonczyk's staging of The Pragmatists—an early Witkiewicz work—feels exactly like a waking dream; certainly not comparable to anything that I can think of.
The strange, nearly surreal quality of the event begins even before the play starts, as Lewonczyk himself escorts the audience, two or three at a time, around a maze of drawn curtains to the seating area. On stage in a dim glow of shadows sits a motionless man on a couch; close by is a white-faced, white-clad rag doll of a woman, who looks like a character from a German Expressionist painting come to life (though nevertheless quite still). Nearer to the spectators, another woman plays an odd melody on a tinkly little toy piano.
Soon, the play proper begins. It's about Plasfodor (the man on the sofa), who talks a lot but seems fairly incapable of actually taking action; his mute wife Mammalia (the Expressionist figure), from whom language seems to want to explode almost continuously, but of course her soundless condition makes communication difficult, if not impossible; and their servant (the one at the piano), an androgyne named Masculette. They are visited by Plasfodor's friend and possible rival, the bombastic Count Von Telek, who has the improbable job of Minister of Poisons. Von Telek has brought Plasfodor a gift: a Chinese mummy who, apparently, was once lovers with Plasfodor. Masculette is in love with the Count; Mammalia, at one point, tries to stab him—alas, with a retractable stage knife that can do no harm.
None of this ultimately matters very much, though, for in The Pragmatists, understanding—such as it is—happens at cognitive levels above and below pure reason. For me, the experience was of a clash of isms: surrealism, sure and pervasive; also absurdism (and even some of Brecht's alienation effect); cubism in the play's distortion and reconstruction of things we think we recognize; existentialism in its pessimistic presentation of impotence; maybe even some dadaism (hard to be sure because we don't see it all that often.). As all of these abstract ideological/artistic/political notions suggest, my experience at The Pragmatists was essentially an intellectual one. I was engaged, but not emotionally involved; and so for me at least, Witkiewicz's hope that I would be affected by his work the way that a dream affects me didn't happen.
But I'm very glad to have had a chance to sit through it. I was astonished to find out that The Pragmatists was written in 1919, for in its disconcerting disconnectedness it feels much newer than that. What I learned at The Pragmatists was that much of what we call seminal in modern drama—the works of Beckett, Ionesco, and Sartre, for example—began to take root here.
The production, artful and detailed, is a marvel. Iracel Rivero's costumes and set are stunningly stylized. The (uncredited) lighting, a blend of traditional instruments and more subversive hand-held pieces, flashlights, etc., creates an ethereal haze without every feeling eerie or obvious. David Shim's sound design completes the environment—everything is at once familiar and unfamiliar.
The five actors make what is essentially non-sequitur nonsense endlessly compelling. Hope Cartelli is by turns broadly funny and painfully eloquent as the silent Mammalia. Fred Backus, sporting a hairstyle that is all by itself sort of netherworldly, embodies anomie and inertia as the impotent Plasfodor; while Andrea Modica is all inflated pomposity as the visiting Count. Stacia French is aptly enigmatic as the Mummy. Kelli Rae Powell, vaguely grounded but trapped as Masculette, arouses the most of our sympathy for seeming to be in our world as well as theirs.
It's weird, unnerving, challenging, and sometimes frustrating stuff; it qualifies, as few experiences actually do, for the appellation unique. The Pragmatists is both an adventure in esoteric theatregoing and a lesson in the thoughts and work of one of the 20th century's lesser known dramatic innovators. Lewonczyk—who works as a reviewer for this website when he isn't directing off-off-Broadway plays—has done us proud.