Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Polish Joke (Beck Center)

'POLISH JOKE' at Beck is fun, but....

The Beck Center’s present production is ‘POLISH JOKE.’

Were you offended by the title of the play? Did you think that many of the lines in such a play would start with “Did you hear about the Pollack who....? or “How many Pollacks would it take to ....?”

Well, if so, you weren’t alone. When David Ives’ satirical comedy opened in Hartford, Connecticut, a letter was sent to the editor of a local paper. It read, in part: “As a member of the Polish Cultural Club, I was surprised the production was not advertised in our local Polish newspapers. I understand why now. I was completely unprepared for the level of ridicule and defamation in this production. Part of this is the fault of the playwright, David Ives, born David Roszkowski, and now writing under an Irish pen name. The depiction of Polish Americans in the play was a vehicle for his own self hatred as a Polish-American and lack of connection to his own deep patrimony, which is used only as an occasion for ridicule. From the first scene, Poles are caricatured as fat, dirty, working class drunks, sometimes crawling out of pipes with toilet plungers, at other times pulling shiny, greasy kielbasas out of their pockets. The Polish psyche is repeatedly called one of "disappointment, discouragement, and despair." When I left the theater, I approached a member of the board of directors to voice my complaint, and she retorted "obviously you didn't get it!"

On some levels both of these people are right. The letter writer took the jokes and the stereotypes literally. He did not recognize the use of stereotype to try and make the point of self-hatred by many immigrants, and the need for some people to attempt to deny their heritage as part of their coming to terms with what it means to be an “American.” He couldn’t see the satire because of his deep abiding pride in being Polish. Part of the problem was also the poor writing structure of the play. This is no great work of literature.

On the other hand, the board member was correct. Ives was telling the story of many immigrant groups who tried to escape from their pasts because they did not want to be thought of as “greenhorns,” “foreigners,” not “real” Americans. They didn’t want to be part of the people who ate strange foods, spoke strange languages and wore strange clothing.

POLISH JOKE had its world premiere in Seattle in 2001 and was subsequently produced in New York in 2003.

It recounts the tale of Jasiu through the myriad ramifications of ethnic identity in America. His journey starts, innocently enough, in the Polish working class neighborhood of Chicago called “The Bush.” As a nine-year old, he is influenced by his Uncle Roman who utters the life-altering questions that will send the young man on his pilgrimage, “ Are you sometimes overwhelmed by a tragic feeling of hopelessness and despair?” and “Some days do you get this profound feeling of utter, total futility?” When the boy admits he does have those feelings, Uncle Roman pronounces the cause: “ It’s because you’re Polish”. This begins young Jasiu’s quest to escape his destiny and adopt another ethnic origin with fewer dire consequences.

The play has been called, “hilarious,” “inventive,” and “thoughtful.” I would have used words like “funny in parts,” “poorly structured,” “stretching believability,” and “written more like an extended comedy sketch than a compelling play.” The fragmentation and the feeling that this is an over-extended one joke reflect from Ives best being known as “the master of the comic one-acter.”

Beck’s production, under the direction of Jerrold Scott, is quite acceptable. Greg Wenz is consistently excellent in a role that requires him to grow from age nine to adulthood. He makes Jasiu real in spite of being given lines that often fringed on the ludicrous. Leslie Feagan, though he stumbled over some of his lines, changed from one character to another with ease. He was especially effective as a priest. John Busser, Sheila Maloney and Kim Weston all took on numerous roles with general success.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “POLISH JOKE’ will offend some, hit personal chords with others, and entertain some. It’s one of those theatrical experiences that brings neither boos nor resounding applause.