Fireworks, stilts and smoke machines

Going to numerous performances at the 20th International Street Theater Festival was a sober reminder of how difficult it is to put on an entertaining spectacle, even with an arsenal of fireworks, stilt-walkers, smoke machines, naked women and contraptions at one?s disposal. The moment of indisputable brilliance came right at the start (July 11 at 21:00), from Warsaw?s Teatr Akt. One could happily devote a page to this production alone, which was a dazzling blend of weird glitz (lunatic weathermen, women in cocktail dresses, Bolek and Lolek, a Broadway dance number with janitors throwing brooms) and a narrative so subtle and suggestive that one only pieced it together fifteen minutes after the show ended. Essentially variations on the theme of the Icarus myth, the play?s logic functioned through associations. The custodian song-and-dance routine concluded with feathers falling from the sky, which needed sweeping up; Icarus?s fall was portrayed by a white-painted modern dancer suspended from a crane; slapstick humor turned into winsome nostalgia, and finally everything concluded with a menacing scene of the apocalypse that involved the audience getting gassed. A model example of how street theater has the potential to use a battery of pyrotechnics and still attempt something artistically meaningful.  On the other end of the spectrum was an unintentionally-funny show by Lodz?s Teatr Lalek Arlekin, whose big budget was meant to mask the complete absence of any so-to-speak ideas. Rapier fights that go on for ten minutes, scary druids chanting cryptic prophecies (?The sun and stars have fallen from the sky… The women are no longer women, and the men are hyenas?), a naked woman burnt on a stake, music that sounded like the ?Star Wars? soundtrack at half speed… All this and more bored spectators for an hour or so on the Rynek Glowny, and none of it made the slightest bit of sense.   More intimate, but no less pointless was the Barnet College/Corpus Soma Theater Company (London) co-production of ?The Fantastic Library of La Mancha,? which combined shoddy costumes, histrionic acting and a limping plot to bad effect. All that happens is books are prevented from being burnt, and scenes are recreated from the books as they are saved. Lots of running around and shouting ?Save the books! Save the books!? to compensate, presumably, for the lack of fireworks, stilt-walkers etc.Also from England (Bury St. Edmunds) was the EO.45 Theater, performing their ?Variations on the Theme of Don Quixote.? One cannot complain that this young ensemble was attempting to achieve too much. Middle-of-the-road saxophone music interspersed with Astor Piazolla played in the background, while the actors walked about like robots, setting their ladders here and there and assembling different tableaux. The main confusion that hits the spectator while watching this piece is: Given that they could choose to perform anything at all in the world, why would they choose this precisely? Not that it?s terrible per se, but it is hard to imagine what would motivate someone to fly all the way from Bury St. Edmunds to Krakow to perform such a thing. After 15 minutes the actors concluded and left without bowing, themselves looking mildly disgruntled at the performance.  In the Teatr Figur tent on Maly Rynek an entertaining production was being put on for the little ones entitled ?Crime and Punishment According to Heinrich Hofman.? These classic tales of children meeting their untimely, grisly ends were imaginatively squashed into a miniature stage, with adults manipulating rag-doll child puppets in ways that sometimes created impressive optical illusions. Not all the actors were equally talented, but it was nonetheless a promising first show by this young theater ensemble. Another performance by the same group, ?The Sum of Small Dreams,? performed outside the tent on Sunday at 18:30, was less coherent and at times seemed to make little sense at all. The live band was tight and had interesting ideas, but why, for example, was the hospital patient sitting on the big chair? For the genre he is working in ? the fairly standard street clown genre, that is ? the Portugese Clown Enano does quite a splendid job. Working a space that would be a challenge for six perfomers to fill, Enano performed slapstick tricks that everyone has seen a dozen times before, but with such desperate energy that the crowd of hundreds was kept smiling. Actually, his main asset would seem to be his cruelty ? Enano?s habit was to push his ?performer?s immunity? as far as he believed it would go, mocking football hooligans, stealing and redistributing people?s cameras and wristwatches, asking Americans if they had found Osama bin Laden yet. He understood that clowning is mainly successful when there is something ambiguous, something half-sinister about it, and his best moments came when the crowd was slightly afraid of him.All in all, it was what one has come to expect from the street theater festival under the curation of Teatr KTO?s Jerzy Zon ? a fair amount of head-scratching with flashes of brilliance popping out when you least expect them.

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