Theater at the edge of war: Laughs, brutal truths and a Zelensky spoof

Marcin Oliva Soto
Michal Felek Felczak, on right, as Volodymyr Zelensky, with other cast members in “A Play About President Zelensky” at the Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival in Krakow, Poland.

KRAKOW, Poland – Laughter is a reassuring sound in this picturesque, snow-covered city three hours from the Ukrainian border. It emanates from a theater on Krakowska Street, where a buff, bearded actor in his world-famous character’s trademark uniform – khaki T-shirt and pants – gyrates gymnastically with a chorus of male dancers and reflects sardonically on his astonishing change in circumstances.

“Yes, it is the role of my life!” he exclaims in Polish, the English translation flashing on a pair of television screens. “I don’t play a president on the barricades. I am that president!”

The audience giggles and guffaws all the way through “A Play About President Zelensky,” a two-hour vaudeville directed by Piotr Sieklucki that has been hailed as one of Poland’s best plays of 2022. Erstwhile comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is now lionized as an inspirational leader across much of the globe. Here, as played by a compact look-alike named Michal Felek Felczak, he’s also the president next door, a figure not above a little roasting. In the play, he spars with a double for Vladimir Putin sent to taunt him, debates history with the ghost of Rasputin and ducks for cover every time an earsplitting bombing raid sounds.

The piece is one of the more robustly satirical entries in Krakow’s annual Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival, a bustling, nine-day theater marathon. It is curated by artistic director Bartosz Szydlowski, a passionate dynamo who, since 2007, has been bringing plays from all over Poland to its second-largest city. Many of Krakow’s playhouses open their doors to the kind of rule-breaking dramas that are revered in this theater-loving nation of 38 million. A Poland that of late has absorbed millions of refugees from neighboring Ukraine – and a Poland whose theater people, many also activists, are finding a lot to say about the nearby cataclysms.

American theater investigates all manner of urgent concerns, but in matters of war, the discourse routinely occurs at a geographical remove. With a country in flames across Poland’s eastern border, I traveled to Krakow last month to erase some of that distance. I wanted to see how art is conducted on the outskirts of a combat zone – what a war in progress and the miseries it ignites do to an artistic discipline that must exist vitally in the moment. How do you make art when the world is coming apart?

In seeking answers, I wasn’t disappointed. The productions, all except one subtitled in English, introduced me to a theater world struggling starkly with how to respond to the ills convulsing Western societies. In Poland, it seems, one doesn’t go to the theater to escape the world; Broadway by comparison is a soft-focus fairy-tale land. Here much if not all the work seems to drag audiences to the window and shout, “Look at what is happening!” Not for nothing was the play presented by Szydlowski himself in his city-funded theater in the Nowa Huta neighborhood – once a model socialist Krakow suburb – titled “Fear and Misery 2022.”

“The festival is to give this light to artists,” Szydlowski says. “I use this platform to announce the importance of Polish theater.”

“In pretty much every show, the artists are coming together around an inquiry, and you feel as an audience that you’re being invited into this inquiry,” says Howard Shalwitz, former artistic director of Washington, D.C’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre and a longtime advocate for theater from this part of the world. (His plans in 2014 for a Woolly festival of avant-garde plays from Moscow collapsed after Russia seized Crimea.) “It’s not that we never feel that in the States, but it’s so consistent in Poland. And so it gives you a different feeling about how you relate to the people around you in the theater. The space feels more public.”

It was at Shalwitz’s suggestion that I came to Krakow. Under the auspices of the Center for International Theatre Development, he brought a 20-member American theater delegation there last month to see the plays and talk to members of the Polish theater community. The contingent included Maria Goyanes, Shalwitz’s successor at Woolly; Philadelphia-based performance artist Jennifer Kidwell (“Underground Railroad Game”); and director Liesl Tommy, Tony-nominated for “Eclipsed” and director of the movie “Respect.” The Baltimore-based CITD, founded by Philip Arnoult, fosters ties with directors and other artists in Central and Eastern Europe.

Already, actors and directors from Ukraine, among some of the estimated 3.5 million Ukrainians who have resettled in Poland, are being integrated into the Polish theater landscape: Three late entries to the festival were plays about the war developed and performed by Ukrainians. They followed a dictum that pervades the theater world here – that the message is infinitely more crucial than linear formality.

This was certainly true of “I Feel Mint for You,” a play by two Ukrainian actresses who escaped devastated eastern Ukraine and now shelter in the southern Polish city of Sosnowiec. The title is colloquial and reveals only in the most oblique terms what the actors seek to portray: the competitive but loving relationship they forge, as their homeland lies in ruins. A photo montage from bombed-out Ukrainian communities flashes on a screen throughout the episodic, 90-minute production, which culminates in a wrenching scene in English, during which one of the characters loses her composure. “Why people die? Why people die?” she bellows. “Why die? Why die? Why die?”

The work is raw, elusive, gripping, a deeply moving brush with what I’d been seeking: art created viscerally, out of what was occurring across the border. At Krakow’s National Academy of Theatre Arts, Polish directing student Dominika Przybyszewska presented a powerful movement piece based on Greek myth that she titled “Promise Me There Will Be No War.”

Marcin Oliva Soto
Actors in the scathing comedy “A Play About President Zelensky.

“It’s very physical,” another student, Stanislaw Chludzinski, tells me of his feelings about the war, on a morning the American delegation visited the academy. “I would say that everyone feels it deep down, that there is violence there. I have family there.”

Those ties bind the two nations. “There are many Ukrainian artists trying to work in Poland with no connections, who know nobody,” says Wojtek Zralek-Kossakowski, a Polish artistic adviser to the actresses in “I Feel Mint for You.”

The Ukrainian artists, he says, have received special Polish Theater Institute grants to work in Sosnowiec and other cities. Theater in Poland is virtually entirely government subsidized, with some inevitable political fallout. The right-wing national government is at odds with many in the artistic community, who depend on the nation’s more liberal city governments to support their work.

“There are very few occasions I can be proud of my country,” Zralek-Kossakowski adds, referring to the aid. “This is one of them.”

One of the actresses in “Mint,” Kateryna Vasiukova, says the adjustment was not easy. “I came to Poland nine months ago,” she says. “I remember how cold it was, how scary, how strange.”

“Mint” adhered to a notion of theater devoting more attention to unfettered expression than to structure. Antithetical to theater in New York or London, the director, not the playwright, tends to be in charge of a production’s intention, and meaning. The rehearsal process, Polish theater people say, routinely starts without a script. It’s the subversive product of a nation that went through the devastation of World War II and came out a different society, under Soviet domination.

“Anything that is kind of traditional, based on a craft, the way our grandfathers did it, that’s all obliterated,” says Michal Zadara, a Warsaw-based director who recently spent a year teaching at Swarthmore College. “The people who were doing theater after the war were just different people than who were doing it before the war.”

The disruption of the conventional was no more apparent than in a festival offering by 79-year-old director Krystian Lupa, a giant of Polish theater. He is so averse to ceding control that during performances of his epic-length works, he sits in the back of the theater with a microphone, constantly interrupting with distracting noises and suggestions for his actors. Over the PA system, the effect – maybe intentional? – is akin to hearing the voice of God.

In the ornate Slowacki Theatre, Lupa’s “Imagine” unfolds over 51/2 relentless hours. Inspired by John Lennon’s song of healing and pacifism, the play is a sprawling canvas, provoked by an issue that nags at Lupa: why an older generation supposedly moved by “Imagine” has failed to live up to its idealism. At one point deep into the evening, one of Lupa’s actors, a spectrally thin Andrzej Klak, seizes on the occasion to blurt out a diatribe on dire current events.

“Can’t you see that 100,000 young Russians are stationed on the Ukrainian border?” Klak declares. “These people are ready to die, to start shooting. Will they ever realize how absurd that is, how horribly, monstrously stupid and evil?”

It’s both a jolt and an illustration of Zadara’s observation: “You don’t care about anything, except for what you want to say. And are you saying what you really want to say?”

Zadara’s own entry in the festival leaves no doubt about what he wants to say. “Responsibility” is a refreshingly unadorned play about Syrian and other asylum seekers stopped by guards and held in limbo on the Belarus-Poland border. The 90-minute fact-based piece unfolds as if it were a legal proceeding. On a set outfitted with folding tables, whiteboards and laptops, three highly regarded Polish actors – Mateusz Janicki, Maja Ostaszewska and Barbara Wysocka – present a packed audience at the Wyspianski Academy of Theatre Arts with evidence of crimes against humanity and violations of the Polish constitution by the government.

The production is a demand for an accounting of why these refugees are treated more severely than, say, those fleeing the war in Ukraine. “Why is a person’s legal status derived by where they are coming from?” an actor asks, as photographs of migrants, trapped in freezing weather at the border, are projected onto a screen.

For Szydlowski, who founded the festival 15 years ago, Zadara’s work has deep relevance. “I did believe I could manage to create a festival about the human condition today,” he says. “I have to deal with the question of responsibility. Right now, you are obliged to be a little more responsible to others.”

A visit with Szydlowski to Nowa Huta, the vast residential district built by the Soviets in the 1950s as a community for iron workers, bore out his assertion. At the invitation of local leaders, Szydlowski created a theater there, Laznia Nowa, in 2005 in what had been a workers’ training center. In the ensuing years, he and his wife, Malgorzata, a set designer, developed other projects, including one he particularly wanted to show me: Dom Utopi (The House of Utopia), a renovated former school, around the corner from his theater, reopened in 2021 as a residence for up to 40 artists and their families.

In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, Dom Utopi became a temporary haven for Ukrainian actors and other artists. Many have moved on. “It’s still going to be a house of ideas,” Szydlowski says, as he escorts me through the House of Utopia’s conference rooms and workshop spaces and apartments.

Ideas, thanks to Szydlowski and his festival, seem to waft over Krakow in December like drifting snowflakes. I’m left with admiration for a theater culture so absorbed in a sober search for truth. But also, it should be noted, not afraid to poke fun at itself. In “A Play About President Zelensky,” the funniest character is not the comedian-president but one dressed in an elaborate Polish folk costume, and played by the director, Sieklucki, who takes selfies as he strolls a ravaged landscape dominated by a charred McDonald’s sign.

“I am a Polish artist who came to Ukraine to help you people,” he says. “And I want to be praised for that!” The audience erupts. It is, in fact, the biggest laugh of the night.