Life During Wartime

These fellas aren't auditioning for the next May Day parade: Poland's Teatr Biuro Podrozy and their war wraiths
Courtesy of Guthrie Theater

War survivors are plagued by the brutality of what they've experienced, but their worst memories may not be of mass destruction. Instead, small moments, ones that demonstrate just how far a person has strayed from normal living, can make the lasting marks on the psyche. A citizen of Sarajevo, for example, recounted seeing kittens lapping up blood on the sidewalk after a mortar attack. She relied on handmade maps posted on walls to learn the safest routes to avoid sniper fire. Everything about the world that she'd previously taken for granted became suspect. Such uncertainty infects the mind, spawning a fear that never goes away.

Poland's Teatr Biuro Podrozy's 1994 work Carmen Funèbre (Funeral Song), playing outdoors this weekend on the site of the new Guthrie Theater, taps into the psychological impact of human conflict, drawing spectators into harrowing depictions of inhumanity. Though it was inspired by interviews with Bosnian refugees, it strives for a more "universal picture of war," according to Marta Strzalko, a company member for 13 years. Speaking by e-mail (and in translation) while beginning the company's latest tour, Strzalko elaborates: "We meant the performance to be our emotional reaction to the events escalating and broadening around [the world]--as if the bitter symbol of the World War II was...long forgotten."

Teatr Biuro Podrozy was founded in 1988 by director Pawel Szkotak. Loosely translated, the phrase means "travel agency," and the company has cultivated a nomadic spirit, wandering within different theatrical movements as well as around the globe. According to Strzalko, the name refers "to the communist era in Poland when all passports were stored by the police. If somebody wanted to go abroad he had to wait in a long get--or rather borrow--the passport for the time of the planned journey. The troubles with the passports...were to be compensated for by the journey of the imagination in the theater."

While the company's body of work is well regarded, Carmen Funèbre has become a sort of "cult classic," according to Pawel Otoroczyn, director of the Polish Cultural Institute, and a partner with the Walker Art Center and the Guthrie Theater in producing the work. The show has been performed in 27 countries, hinting at the power of its theatrical language to reach different audiences and cultures.

The group's "tale of war in the modern world" is realized outdoors with the audience encircling the action, often in disconcertingly close proximity. Stilt walkers depicting menacing warlords, beggars, and even Death itself walk among the audience. "We feel like tiny figures among Goliaths," Otoroczyn explains. "It gives us a sense of proportion, it humanizes the scale of oppression." Candlelit paper houses are sent skyward by helium-filled balloons, suggesting a loss of all stability and mooring. Soldiers taunt a young woman, spraying her with red wine. For American audiences, most of whom have been spared experience with battle, the work approximates pervasive terror.

For Michal Kobialka, head of the graduate theater program at the University of Minnesota, the immediacy of this approach is necessary. "Give me a theater that is an answer to reality, that adds a tension to reality," he says. "It's not about shock value. It's about bringing you back from the place that the media has sanitized."

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