It might seem appropriate that St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO is ending their run at 38 Water St. (don't worry, next season they will be at a new space in DUMBO!) with a play entitled Festen (The Celebration). However, if you are expecting a happy and heartwarming party, you are going to be in for quite a surprise. In true St. Ann's style, TR Warszawa's production combines stunning design, choreography, and acting to a dark but mesmerizing plot. In other words, this party is more Hitchcock than Happy the Clown, though it is in point of fact something different entirely.
I have come to expect creative design from St. Ann's, a place where the space's appearance surprises me every single time I see it. This production was no different. Małgorzata Szczęśniak's set design is clean, simple, and expertly arranged. When combined with Jacqueline Sobiszewski's lights, the result is an exciting blend of the best visual aspects of film and theatrical design. The two designers and director Grzegorz Jarzyna work together to draw the spectator's eye to one moment or several parts of the stage, all the while ensuring that wherever your eye wanders, there will be something to see.
But, as I said previously, form and function do not go hand in hand in this production. The clean lines of the set are specifically set in contrast to the messy dysfunction that pervades the plot.
Festen, an adaption of the 1998 Swedish Film The Celebration, is done by the Polish theater company TR Warszawa in Polish with English supertitles. The plot revolves around a family patriarch's sixtieth birthday, which leads his family and friends to come together to have a party. In the course of the evening (well, in between courses served around a large two-part dinner table) some family secrets are brought out into the open that threaten to seriously dampen the celebratory mood.
Though this plot seems like it could be the simplified version of hundreds of plays and movies, the particularly unpredictable nature of the narrative kept me actively engaged throughout. I never knew exactly what would happen next, and what's more, I cared a great deal.
In fact, I could tell that the audience as a whole was with these performers. This was particularly obvious when one of the young actresses accidentally bumped her head and the audience let out a collective gasp. The girl was fine, but I bring this up because if I had any doubt that others were as engrossed as I was, this moment proved it.
At intermission I was shocked at how quickly the time had flown. The production has a very unusual theatrical structure. Its total running time is about two hours and fifteen minutes including intermission, but the first act is about one hour and fifty minutes long, leaving the second act at about ten or fifteen minutes. I have never seen a show with such temporally uneven acts. But though I'm not sure the intermission, which allows for a scene change, was necessary, I am quite happy that the play defied expectations in this way. Just like the plot itself, which moves from comedy to psychodrama to moments of dance-theater, the intermission and second act both rupture and fulfill the narrative.
I apologize that I am being so vague about the plot points themselves, but I am actively trying not to ruin the surprises. Perhaps it is enough to say that I enjoyed the production immensely, but the themes made me wonder about myself for doing so. I was drawn into the world of the play, and though that world was at times violent and corrupt, I was happy to be bearing witness to the events on stage. If you want to see a show that will entertain you visually and mentally, celebrate good times in DUMBO with Festen (The Celebration).