Princess Ivona – Dark, Absurdist, and Timely

Witold Marian Gombrowicz (1904 –1969) was a Polish author of fiction and plays centered on rigid structures of class and culture wrestling contemporary values and search for identity in that context. He excelled in absurdist satire. Having prevented early publication of his own work in Poland because of selected censorship, Gombrowicz didn’t achieve fame until the latter part of his life, at which point his oeuvre was translated into over thirty languages.

This well put together, stylized production reminds me of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, another tragic-comic piece whose amorality plays without histrionics and whose staging is most successful when carefully mannered. Couched as a latter day fairy tale, Princess Ivona revolves around decadent Prince Philip becoming obsessed with a commoner whose proximity threatens status quo. As the young royal, Bailey Edwards looks and gracefully moves like a young Roger Rees. His fixation and yearning for debasement are palpable.

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King (Michael Druker) and Court

What was originally written as an appeal for donation has been reimagined as an intrusive citizen/audience member called Innocent, (Ben Rosenblum in appealing, naturalistic performance), storming the stage to press for ‘selfies’ with King and court. As conceptualized, the entire tale unfolds around us, in theater aisles as well as on stage. We are immersed, involved.

The man’s date, Ivona, (Petra Mijanovic), remains seated and silent, intriguing the bored Prince who collects the docile girl. “Do you know that the moment one looks at you, one is tempted to harm you in some way…You must be mine.”

King Ignatius (Michael Druker), Queen Margaret (Carina Zox), and the Lord Chamberlain (David Carter) are appalled. “I will marry her. She is my own turmoil,” Philip states obliviously. When Ignatius threatens to banish his son, Margaret assures her husband that Philip’s attraction is based on pity and will certainly pass. Instead, partially due to the girl’s self possessed acquiescence, Philip decides that his own uncomfortable excellence will be positively countered by “one so inferior.”

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Carina Zox, Bailey Edwards, Petra Mijanovic, Michael Druker

The Prince and his friends Simon (Jackson Zerkl) and Cyprian (Connor Lawhom) circle the girl in ritualistic fashion. Ivona is reserved, watchful, calm. (Philip addresses her by name -which no one has, I think, shared.) Innocent unsuccessfully tries to reclaim her, then gives up and exits the theater.

Philip’s coup de foudre (love at first sight) culminates in immensely evocative, balletic, lovemaking against a side wall. Meanwhile Ignatius, the Chamberlain, and Margaret, plot against her. Here, the Queen, planning separately from her husband,  has a Lady Macbeth turn insisting on dishevelment before she commits a potentially heinous act. Maid Isobel (Mia Hull, who maintain’s perfect pitch in silence) is commanded to disarrange her mistress’s hair. The brief scenario is compelling.

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Petra Mijanovic and Bailey Edwards

Murder is, of course, managed – in a rather ignominious way the King chooses to perceive as magisterial and in full view of a quietly complicit court. All Philip can muster is wide eyes.

We end with the company/court in ostensible mourning, posing for a group photograph. Inspired.

Michael Druker (the King) fares better at distraught monologue than as a royal leader. Carina Zox is too much surface until her Shakespearean parentheses, which reads true. David Carter (the Chamberlain) pastes on an artificial grin which unsuccessfully attempts to be as evil as the Batman villain, Joker, and gestures so broadly he reads false from the get-go. Like comedy which must be played as unfunny, it’s essential for stylization to be enacted as if real. Characters must be unselfconscious.

As a whole, additional cast- Spencer Lee-Ray, Veronica Kovalcik, Evelyn Mahon, and Sofia Smith are focused and cohesive

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The Court surrounding David Carter, Petra Mijanovic, Michael Druker

Choreographers Pablo Aran Gimeno and Jorge Puerta Armenta (Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch company members) do a splendid job of creating attractive, formalized movement. (Particular highlights have been called out.)

Director Omar Sangare (founder of the United Solo Festival and theater professor at Williams College) has slightly updated a piece written between the World Wars without ripping the fabric of its intention. The court reacts with brief, callous laughter or applause on command depicting them, in essence, as sheep. Intermittent hand-lighting of the out-sized chandelier, Ignatius’ crawling out from behind a couch, our not being able to quite see the murder ‘weapon’ are, in addition to mentioned moments, deftly realized. Space is beautifully utilized. Pacing absorbs.

Minimal Set Design (Joanna Kus) in conjunction with Lighting (Coby Chasman- Beck) is striking. Tiny red lights across the stage floor, draped from the fantastic chandelier, and bordering a settee work well. Stephen Simalchik’s Sound Design is haunting. Deb Brothers’ Costume Design evokes unspecific, European 1900s with skill.

Princess Ivona was premiered at Williams College in March 2015. This outing  is under the auspices of the Consulate General of The Republic of Poland in New York in partnership with the Embassy of The Republic of Poland in Washington D.C., Polish Cultural Institute New York, and Williams College.

Opening Photo: The Company

Princess Ivona by Witold Gombrowicz
Directed by Omar Sangare
English Translation by Krystyna Griffith-Jones and Catherine Robins
Students of Williams College
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch company members
Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row
January 16, 2016

About Alix Cohen (727 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.