Visionary Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna creates stunning images for Macbeth.
Thu Jun 19 2008
Photograph: Etienne Frossard
As builders toil under a broiling sun, a massive seating structure stretches toward the sky. These are the bones of an ad hoc performance space, constructed from scratch in Dumbo’s Tobacco Warehouse, a partial ruin in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Under a tree nearby, coiled around his cigarette, Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna plays it cool, despite the staggering heat and punishing schedule ahead. With just a week to house and mount his enormously tech-driven adaptation of Macbeth (spoiler: the walls are explosion-proof), Jarzyna still hasn’t ruffled a hair in his hipster soul patch.
The director, 40, has already made a splash in Europe. A decade ago, after training under Polish directing giant Krystian Lupa, Jarzyna burst onto the scene. Turning down prestigious jobs in Kraców, Jarzyna moved to younger, brasher Warsaw to run Teatr Rozmaitosci with Krzysztof Warlikowski, a fellow Lupa protégé. The past decade has seen their company leapfrog from success to success—Warlikowski won an Obie for last season’s Krum (at BAM) and Jarzyna beat out international-superstar-directors Simon McBurney and Luc Bondy for the prestigious Nestroy Preis.
But even he admits that the current project has been difficult. Finding a venue tall enough took years (the producer, St. Ann’s Warehouse, considered raising its usual space’s roof). The empty brick arches of the Tobacco Warehouse were perfect, but persuading the gaggle of state and private conservancies seemed impossible. St. Ann’s director Susan Feldman finally won a permit, only to find the noise level prohibitive. In desperation, the designers borrowed an idea from “silent discos,” in which clubbers sway to their own iPods. The production team installed headphones on every seat, ensuring that monologues can reverberate directly into the listener’s skull. More may yet go wrong, according to Aaron Rosenblum, general manager. “We almost died during last week’s storm,” he says cheerily. “The tech tower started swaying, we thought it was gonna fly to New Jersey. Lightning bolts hit nearby. But we stood up to this massive storm—which is a good metaphor for the project.”
Now, of course, the venue seems inevitable. The Brooklyn Bridge’s crosshatched underbelly looms overhead—its Deco lines set off the gray, military edges of a distinctly industrial Dunsinane. And for a show that ruthlessly evokes current international conflicts—a witch in a chador appears, Macbeth’s forces slaughter Muslims at prayer—Manhattan’s downtown skyline makes for a powerful backdrop. It doesn’t hurt that an American flag flutters exactly where a set designer would have placed one: high and to the left.
Jarzyna demurs on questions of specific political intent. “I am not the guy who thinks that theater can change the world,” he says. Still, this is the second time he has chosen a hot-button site. “In Warsaw, we played in a huge warehouse once used by Bumar, the only company from Poland that made weapons for the Iraq War,” Jarzyna recalls. “Here, the location is so significant, we don’t have to underline it. From the top seats you can see where the towers were. Because of that, we can say even less.”
This production lacks the rough-hewn spirituality we expect from the Polish avant-garde. Americans may still associate that stripe of world drama with Tadeusz Kantor’s cryptic, homespun spectacles or Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theater.” But Jarzyna’s work is Theater of the Positively Luxe. His influences range across cinema: He namechecks Blade Runner, his supersaturated colors recall Peter Greenaway, a giant rabbit hallucination wanders in from Donnie Darko and his upmarket-horror aesthetic is pure Guillermo del Toro. Dramaturgically, Jarzyna isn’t one to let “I dare not” wait upon anything, judging by an ear-punishing helicopter soundtrack, graphic post-homicidal coitus and soldiers whizzing into scenes via zip line.
The script has as much Jarzyna as Shakespeare, a tendency that split Polish critics. Some chafed at the show’s antiwar stance, seeing it as an inappropriate parallel to Macbeth’s regicidal ambition. Jarzyna has a number of sins in his sights, however—not just big, bad American interventionism. At one point, Macbeth quotes Vladimir Putin’s famously chilling line, “There is a lot of work still to do.” Jarzyna warns, “Putin has started to use the church like a czar. Listen to them—like Macbeth, these leaders are always talking about a supernatural connection.”
Ultimately, Jarzyna hopes to stimulate the audience into asking itself a crucial question. “Powerful men make a decision and hundreds of thousands die,” he muses. “I read the newspaper and feel terrible—how can one guy act and yet millions feel guilty?” Some obstacles won’t resolve themselves until the play’s wound up. The Olafur Eliasson waterfall project, which will pepper New York’s harbors with 120- foot-high water features, threatens to vie with Macbeth’s mise-en-scène, and a jackhammer has been known to start up on the bridge at 11pm. But barring any more thunder, lightning or horizontal rain, Jarzyna and his crew will ensure that something wicked cool this way comes.
Macbeth is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through June 29. The production is sold out but there is a waiting list.