“King Deer” compelling

The “chandeliers” resemble fancy glass industrial piping. The cafe has the atmosphere of a milk bar spruced up for a high society function. And the main hall itself has a ceiling decor that could either be aiming at a very minimalist trompe l’oeil or a Soviet attempt at science-fiction. The choice, it seems, is yours.The audience, meanwhile, is a sea of Krakow’s middle-sophisticates; cocktail dresses and dignified beards wherever you look. And because the Ludowy stages more conservative performances, there are an awful lot of gray heads in attendance.

The “lud” [people] have visibly changed, with their pearl necklaces and fur coats, but somehow the theater carries on as it was.The play itself provides the final contrast. It is the premiere of Carlo Gozzi’s Krol Jelen [King Deer] staged by Krakow’s resident Italian director, Giovanni Pampiglione. This is Commedia dell’arte that aims to resurrect the spirit of the 18th Century (when Gozzi wrote the piece).

Masks, absurd costumes, expansive gestures. Nothing here is subtle. The audience is asked to laugh at a man’s speech defect, at a tawdry woman’s constant sexual innuendoes, at a bear who throws bombs at hunters. And though this would seem to be far too much to ask of a room filled with elderly and university-educated adults, laugh they do, and myself along with them. This is because King Deer’s comic strategy is to begin with an idiotic premise and then pile on the consequences, each sillier than the one before, until the audience breaks down and laughs along with it. It’s a kind of humor that repeatedly asks you to be amused at the author’s painful lack of sophistication, his clumsy way of handling romance, his inability to create dramatic conflict, and then finally to laugh at yourself for devoting three hours to such absurd entertainment.

This aspect of Gozzi is wonderfully emphasized by director Pampiglione. Many of the characters here are given attributes – a moronic smile, an absurd stutter, a screechy voice – that undermine the role they are expressly meant to be playing. These are all grotesque caricatures, but horribly inconsistent ones, whose inconsistencies actually get in the way of their performing their stock roles.It will take a small miracle to summarize the plot in some coherent way. King Deram has two magic powers – the first is a magic statue that helps him tell whether women are lying or not, and which helps him choose his wife in the first act of the play.

In the second act it is revealed that the king can also make his soul enter that of a dead creature through reciting a poem. This power is very nearly his undoing, for a minister who is jealous that his own daughter has not been chosen for queen waits until the king has entered the body of a deer to enter the king’s body, shooting his own (the minister’s) body and forcing the king to exist now as a deer (perfectly clear?).

Lots more shootings occur, souls keep swapping bodies, the ludicrous magic poem is recited many times with great solemnity, and the concluding scene is surely one of the most unapologetic Deus ex machina’s in theatrical history.All this makes difficult viewing for foreigners, unfortunately. The actors speak very quickly.

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