In 1962 critic Martin Esslin labeled Slawomir Mrozek an absurdist, likening the Polish avant-garde playwright to Beckett and Ionesco. But despite Mrozek's surreal illogic, he's primarily a social satirist, scoffing at pretensions, railing against tyranny, and generally probing social and political dynamics. In Mrozek's world humans may be corrupt, deluded, and foolhardy, but they still hold fate in their own hands, which makes him a lousy absurdist but a genuine, even timeless satirist.
Coming of age in communist Poland, Mrozek took two directions in his early work. Some-times he addressed abuses of centralized power and the curtailment of human freedom: in his first script, The Police (1958), an extraordinarily effective police force eliminates all disloyalty and must therefore create faux dissenters to justify its existence. Other times Mrozek concentrated on more pitiable human foibles. In an early short story a frugal zookeeper orders an inflatable elephant, and when a stiff wind carries the fake beast away, schoolchildren who've been told that elephants weigh 13,000 pounds grow disillusioned, abandon their studies, and ultimately refuse to believe in elephants.
Mrozek fled Poland in 1963 and the following year wrote Tango, the play that gave him international stature. Combining the dual strains of his early satire, Tango is on its surface a send-up of the well-made bourgeois comedy, with a younger generation struggling against the world imposed on them by their elders. But paradoxically the adult world here is one of perpetual adolescence, championed by middle-aged experimental artist Stomil and his free-loving wife, Eleanor. Decades earlier Stomil and Eleanor's generation had "opposed everything" in a bloodless cultural revolution so thorough it eliminated all social rules and conventions. Now the two of them while away their days, indulging every passing whim, while Eleanor's mother, Eugenia, descends into cheerful senility and her stodgy brother, Eugene, strains to remain au courant. But when Stomil and Eleanor's son, Arthur, returns from college with a newfound desire for structure, justified by an endless stream of inflexible intellectual babble, a counterrevolution occurs. Stuffing his parents into respectable middle-class attire, Arthur transforms simpleminded freeloader Eddie into a proper servant and announces, to everyone's horror, that he's going to get married and become a doctor.
Without Mrozek's philosophical rigor and political savvy, Tango might seem like an overgrown episode of Growing Pains. But Mrozek casts the battle between Stomil and Arthur as a clash of powerful political archetypes: the instinctive liberal and the unyielding reactionary. And given the play's iconic characters, Arthur's increasingly zealous efforts to shape up his family suggest the exuberant self-righteousness of despotism as it squashes individuality. Dialogue reflecting the family mayhem is generously peppered with philosophical debates about the possibility of human freedom in a society of collective norms. Esslin suggests Mrozek was taking aim at Stalinism, but it's no stretch to see the current American culture wars in Tango.
Director Brandon Bruce struggles to achieve the right tone for Mrozek's allegorical world. He ends up giving the nearly two-and-a-half-hour show the pace and style of a very good sitcom, producing thoughtful comedy rather than hard-hitting satire. The three actors who have the best handle on the scale of Mrozek's exaggerations play subsidiary characters: Lynnette Gaza as a childishly wise Eugenia, Ron Kuzava as a fussy and effete Eugene, and Christopher Kaye as a creepily vacant Eddie. Because the main characters are played relatively realistically, these three seem mere wacky sidekicks. In a staging that doesn't consistently heighten the script's illogic, the long philosophical debates come across as dead space rather than twisted, disturbing efforts to reshape the world through cold intellectualism.
Still, a thoughtful comedy isn't a terrible thing. And though this one is uneven, it provides ample food for thought. Ultimately Tango is a cautionary tale about the corruption of a naive idealist as he brutally recasts the world to his own liking. Bruce makes that journey entertaining at times, but it's only in the last half of the second act that the play's real stakes emerge. In a searing coup de grace, Marcus Kamie as Arthur plants himself atop the dining room table, intoxicated by the decision to rule by simple brute force, and launches into a steely, celebratory, self-aggrandizing tirade. Finally the chilling horror of Mrozek's grotesque vision is palpable. Then, in a stunning conclusion, Arthur is overthrown by the most unlikely of characters, who also forces the others to capitulate. Here Mrozek makes it unsettlingly clear how easily well-ordered lives can collapse into craven servility.
When: Through 1/29: Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 4 PM
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maciek Zamorski.