Jeremey Catterton’s The Polish Pugilist comes advertised as a “postdramatic triptych” drawing on the visionary ideas of the Polish avant-garde, with three acts set on successive floors of a building not designed for use as a theater. It is all those things, but if you only know those things about it, you may be surprised to learn what a ripping good yarn it is. The story is absorbing and suspenseful, and it ends with a climactic boxing match in which you’re actually rooting for someone. Yes, we are talking about the same Jeremey Catterton who created The Black Arts and Lamb Lays With Lion vs. Katie Mitchell’s The Seagull.
The Polish Pugilist is a late-breaking production that’s emerged with little fanfare, but it doesn’t feel the least bit sloppy, hasty, or underthought—in fact, it’s as polished, complete, and coherent a show as I’ve ever seen from Catterton. The writer/director (whom, I must disclose, is a friend of mine) pulls every tool from his full-to-bursting postdramatic toolbox, and deploys all of them in the service of a bristling, urgently paced story about Polish immigrants arriving in Chicago about a hundred years ago, a story inspired by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and flavored with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.
|the polish pugilist, presented through august 28 at 1419 washington avenue south, minneapolis. for information and tickets ($15-$25), see jeremeycatterton.com|
Catterton himself contributes a committed performance in the eponymous role—though one of the many interesting things about The Polish Pugilist is that it doesn’t have characters in the conventional sense. The actors play people with names, but they seem to represent archetypes, and their actions are narrated in third person, as though their lives are out of their own control. Developments are declared, then enacted. The characters are suffering the travails faced by millions of immigrants to this country, and the suggestion that they are without agency might seem insulting if it weren’t so clearly portrayed as a collective experience. It’s not a story about this man and this woman, it’s a story about these people, in this place, at this time.
Working with Catterton are four onstage collaborators—plus an ASL interpreter (Paula MacDonald) who joins the action rather than standing in an offstage spotlight. (It’s not clear where “offstage” would be, anyway.) As the story of Catterton’s beleagured character unfolds, Jacob Grun, Clare Monesterio, Michael Rylander, and Abbie Williams circle around him like lions in a cage, alternately taking characters and narrating the action. They often—Rylander especially, clad in smoking jacket—pause to tell jokes in the hoary dumb-Polack tradition, and at each punchline the actors moan and grimace as if they’d been physically struck. Again, this could feel insulting or didactic, but it’s handled deftly and swiftly: there are no pauses meant to make us think about what we’ve learned before the action cascades onward.
The play begins on the third floor of the dilapidated interior space at 1419 Washington Avenue, a setting that effectively stands in for the dangerously crowded tenements and run-down houses occupied by the characters. As the first act becomes the second and the second becomes the third, the show practically falls down two flights of steps, with Catterton’s character defending himself from a series of brutal physical and emotional blows that are enacted with an almost literally in-your-face physicality (get ready to duck). Then, at the play’s climax, Catterton faces off against Rylander—especially for those who have seen the charming Rylander in more conventional fare like Bye Bye Liver and The Saved By the Bell Show, it’s worth the price of admission just to see him come bouncing out in an Apollo-Creed-style American flag cape—on a boxing ring of holograms. (I won’t even try to explain how that works.) The lighting by Bryant Locher and the costumes by Hilary Falk are all the more effective for their relative minimalism.
In Lamb Lays With Lion vs. Katie Mitchell’s The Seagull, Catterton separated the narrative and the emotion of Chekhov’s play like oil and water, enacting them side-by-side on the same stage. The concluding act of The Polish Pugilist plays like Jeremey Catterton vs. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, but with the two interpretations wrapped around one another. Catterton and Rylander go at each other with sweat, blood, and bile—in a clever and well-executed maneuver, the blood is applied by their trainers when the combatants take their respective corners—but they fight at odd angles, under swinging lamps, and to the soundtrack of crashing dance rock accompanied by Grun’s live guitar. It’s a dazzling spectacle, one of the most powerful things I’ve seen on stage (er, “on stage”) all year—and it’s a perfectly-judged conclusion to what’s come before. It goes on for a long time, which underlines the point: when you’re in the circumstances in which Catterton’s character finds himself, there’s nothing to do but fight, and fight. And fight. And fight.
If, like me, you’re a fan of Catterton and the experimental methods he employs, you don’t need to be convinced to see The Polish Pugilist. For the rest of you, this show answers the question, “What can avant-garde postdramatic theater do for me?” It can do this, and you should see it while you have the chance.