SOMEONE ONCE SAID "God is in the details," but Polish writer Bruno Schulz evoked a very different spirituality when he imbued everyday objects with almost talismanic qualities in his surreal short stories. Born in 1892, the Jewish writer and teacher was forced by the Nazis to sort books for censorship until his death at the hands of Gestapo officers. Schulz's literary legacy, a precursor to the genre of magical realism, could become impossibly heady stuff when translated to the stage. Luckily, fate intervened in the form of Theatre de Complicite, England's leading experimental troupe. Identifying Schulz, a virtual unknown outside of Poland, as a potent voice for our violent times, the troupe constructed The Street of Crocodiles, performing this week at Theatre de la Jeune Lune.
Director Simon McBurney first encountered Schulz when a colleague gave him a book of the writer's stories. "She said, 'They're so strange and disturbing, but perhaps you might be interested,'" recalls McBurney in a phone interview from Toronto. "I found them curiously familiar and normal, perhaps because I'm strange myself. He captures an extraordinarily strong sense of the child's vision, that is to say, what he describes is not childish but has to do with the way the child sees the world. They reinvent it for themselves. Schulz believes we can get to a point where we can re-see the world as we used to in childhood."
Schulz's imagination finds its incarnation on stage through Complicite's intricately developed performance and shape-shifting production design. The 15-year-old company is a nomadic collective, equally at home in the rarefied air of London's National Theatre or in the middle of traffic on the streets of São Paolo. Often compared to the vision of British director Peter Brook, the company creates works by culling from months of research, improvisation, and orchestration--what McBurney terms "a whole set of accidents." "I believe in chaos in the rehearsal room," he explains. "Chaos is very constructive. If a director has all the ideas worked out beforehand it kills a piece. My objective in the rehearsal room is to find the spark of life in whatever you create."
In developing The Street of Crocodiles the actors chose their characters from Schulz's stories and then "learned to manipulate silly little objects," says McBurney. "They had to be eloquent with the movement of a chair or desk, to be at home with the world of props. Schulz talks about the life of the so-called inanimate object; we had to bring them to life to ratify the text." The result is eloquent sleight-of-hand involving shelves of dancing books and uninhabited clothes, and an acting sensibility that slides comfortably between the human and animal worlds.
While Complicite has enjoyed critical success in honoring Schulz, including a recent laudatory write-up in the New York Times, perhaps the greatest compliments have come from people who knew the man himself. In New York, for example, three former students praised actor Cesar Sarachu, who depicts the Schulz figure, for his accurate portrayal. Another man introduced himself to the company as one of the three people who carried the murdered writer to a Jewish cemetery and dug his grave.
Politics, by necessity, provides subtext for The Street of Crocodiles (a title taken from a Schulz collection), but Complicite chose to emphasize fantasy over didacticism, assuming the truth of history would surface organically. "Whether you choose to read [Schulz's stories] as an artistic response to the Holocaust or whether you choose to see some sense of the dark spiritual decay which lies at the heart of the century, it's still an implied politics," observes McBurney. "The way I wish to read it is by feeling, experiencing, and participating in the event before intellectualizing it, like you do with music. Music can change you in ways that you don't really know."
The Street of Crocodiles, a co-production of the Walker, the Guthrie Theater, and Theatre de la Jeune Lune, runs at the Jeune Lune theater, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday; 377-2224.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.