Prince Charming undone


Written by Janusz Glowacki
Translated by Christina Paul
Directed by Jeffrey Horn
Spring Theatreworks
Milagro Theatre, Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center
107 Suffolk Street (between Delancey and Rivington; 212/502-8560)
Equity showcase (closes Dec. 6)
Review by Jenny Sandman

Director: You have talent. You should think about acting school.

Cinderella: Why bother? There's enough drama here.

After September 11, there was a revival of interest in Eastern European poetry (Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz), especially in New York. Their experience of war and loss after WW II seemed to resonate to shell-shocked Americans. Now Eastern European theatre appears to be making a comeback, as well.

In the past year, plays by Vaclav Havel, Slawomir Mrozek, Heiner Müller, Stanislaw Witkiewicz, and now Glowacki have been produced to critical acclaim in New York. In Eastern Europe, the "absurd" was less an existential problem and more a reflection of the immediate political situation; Absurdism was merely a metaphor for life under a totalitarian regime. In such a land, noted Milan Kundera, realism was a burden and a bother. This is why the European avant-garde was so often placed within an absurdist version of everyday life, rather than in the formless, timeless "no-place" of American and Western European avant-garde (as in the plays of Ionesco and Beckett). Operating as it was within a superimposed and antagonistic political system that was bent on depersonalization, Eastern European theatre was characterized by surreal reality, ambiguous endings, passive heroes, and a general atmosphere of grotesquerie and cynicism.

Cinders, written by Glowacki in 1981, is a rather bold criticism of the political situation in Poland at the time. While attending its premiere in London, martial law broke out in Poland, and he chose to emigrate to New York rather than return. Cinders takes place in a girls' reformatory in Poland, which is planning to perform Cinderella. When the state hears of this, they send a director (Matthew Drennan) to film the production, thinking it would make a good propaganda film. But the director has other plans -- he wants a more artistic movie, something he can shop around to film festivals. He tries to break the girls out of their surly adolescent shells, interrogating them until they start spilling personal secrets, but Cinderella (Karen Allen) refuses to break. In an effort to get her breakdown on tape, the director conspires with the Deputy Head of the school to frame Cinderella as an informant. And his plan works, all too well.

Less absurd than just plain disturbing, Cinders is a truly bleak -- and truly accurate -- depiction of adolescence. The girls know they are trapped and know they have nothing to really look forward to, so they take their anger and frustration out on each other. An elaborate pecking order has developed, with the cruelest girls lording over all and the meekest essentially forced into servitude. They terrorize each other as the director tries to exploit their weaknesses for his film. The other authority figures are no better. The principal of the school (Doug Simpson), a weak and ineffective man, has chosen Cinderella precisely because it is meaningless in the context of the girls' lives. The Deputy (Scott Thomas Hinson) is a conniving man, the sort who would not be averse to sexual bartering with the girls, but nevertheless rules them with an iron fist. The tighter the administration clamps down, the more violent and unhappy the girls become. The best scene in the play is a Metallica-inspired song sung by the girls, after which the Deputy carefully and cheerfully changes each word, one at a time, with much praise, until the song is completely different. A lesson in doublespeak, if there ever was one.

It's a brutal play, and Spring Theatreworks' production of it was equally brutal -- but near-brilliant. The acting, especially by those playing the schoolgirls, was pitch-perfect. Though they are known only by their character names (Cinderella, the Prince, the Ugly Sister, Fairy Godmother), each girl developed an individual characterization that defined them far more accurately. One was the bully, another the slut, another that kid who was always chewing on her braids. They maintained these personality distinctions consistently throughout the play, and these adopted roles transmitted the horrors of adolescence much better than the petty cruelties called for in the script.

The dingy set was in keeping with the gloomy political atmosphere: a black-box stage, hung with moldy curtains, with disintegrating floor tiles and some drab foam cubes. The girls' uniforms (costumes by Jessica Steele) were vaguely punk; they looked like a cross between Courtney Love circa 1992 and David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. Director Jeffrey Horn wisely chose to keep the movements simple and the actions clear. In Cinders, as in most Eastern European plays, the real story takes place between the lines. Glowacki isn't often done these days, and this is a compelling production.

Also with Gregory Kostal, Erin Treadway, Jennifer Naso, Shannon Flynn, Karen Ogle, Maggie Kettering, Alison Saltz, and Kelly Reeves.

  Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman