Ivona, Princess of Burgundy: Gombrowicz Glitters on the Catwalk

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

iivona4magePrince(Tony Adam), Isobel (Ashley Rissler), Margaret (Jaclyn Martinez)

Photo. Marianne Duval 

Written in Poland in 1938 but first published in 1958, Ivona (Princess of Burgundy) is Wiltold Gombrowicz’s first play. The author left Poland in 1939 and spent the rest of his life in Argentina, Germany and France, where he died in 1969. His plays would therefore seem to represent an amalgamation of European theatrical forms and experiments, filtered through possible contact with the very vibrant, expressionist oriented and politically conscious theatre milieu of post-war Argentina. It has been said that Gombrowicz never went to the theatre, but do we really know how he spent his days? In any case, telling about the hours spent  with his Porteño friends in dark little cafés is much more romantic and adds to the mystery of this exceptionally brilliant playwright, about whom we really know very little.

Ekaterina Shestakova is a second year  student in the M.F.A. directing programme at the University of Ottawa working under the supervision of  Peter Bataklyev from Montreal. This play is her final directing project. She has produced a most exceptional staging of a highly complex play with a cast of twelve. At some points, one even forgets this is a student production, so meticulous is her directing, so clear is her artistic vision, that it is only the odd slip by the odd student, as well as the unexpected loss of energy at the end of the first part of the evening, due no doubt to the fragmented nature of the text, that one realizes where we are. But even then, such “slippage” would certainly not escape a local professional company (the NAC included) trying to perform this kind of theatre which is not normally the kind of challenge theatre groups undertake on Ottawa stages.

Gombrowicz takes us into the court of some unidentified place in a prewar period at a point of much unrest, which remains indefined. We might even think of the court of Austria or some other Eastern European country where ruling bodies are in a state of decadence, and moral decay. Some suggest that this is a parody of Shakespeare and one might possibly catch glimpses of Macbeth, or Hamlet, or any other Royal Family that takes centre stage in a play by the bard. There are certainly references here to Polish theatre that must have lingered in the writer’s mind since he composed this text while he was still living in his country. Whatever the case may be, this is a bitter comedy that delves into collective weaknesses of a society as seen through the prism of its youth, of its more fortunate classes, set within a touch of catholic ritual to bring the ceremony to a close.

There is a thoughtfully pouting Prince (played by a very effective Tony Adams) , his highly explosive parents: King Ignatius (Leslie Cserepy) and Queen Margaret (Jaclyn Martinez), his courtly carousing and dandyish drinking pals Simon and Cyprian (Cory Thibert and Jonah Allingham), the Lord Chamberlain (Simon L. Lalande) , and eventually the strange little girl called Ivona (Lauriane Lehouillier) who is pushed into the throne room by two overzealous giggling aunties who want their ugly niece to meet the prince. The prince decides to marry this little creature who hobbles about on bare feet, moves slouched over like a spineless rag doll, is pale, expressionless, apparently unable to speak, with a vacant gaze that infuriates everyone. She suffers from “sluggish blood” explains one of the aunties but she means more than that because the intrusion of this unnerving presence in the court wreaks havoc. From the moment the Prince sets eyes on this young girl, the antithesis of the raving beauties and seductively glittering bodies who inhabit the court, he is strangely fascinated and wants to marry her. His father is infuriated, his mother suppresses her rage and tries to be the good mom in law, his courtly pals make fun of her, but the prince persists. What happens after that is set up in a series of short scenes that transform the glittering world of the court into the sombre world of the most monstrous recesses of the mind which emerge upon encountering this ugly creature? She is the catalyst that opens the gates of hell.

The most important choice of director Shestakova was the fact that she sets the court in the contemporary context of a place between a fashion show and a porno cabaret, where the characters become perfect specimens of physical beauty strutting their entrances and exits on the catwalk to the electronic beat and music of the soundscape that captured the upbeat rhythms of this high fashion world. Andrew Palangio’s sound design throughout the show, hit the spot. They vogue their way around the stage, posing in all manner of frozen moments that even recall Pirandello, slicking back their hair, tossing their heads, smiling for the camera, and playing their roles as mechanically wound up dolls and highly skilled seducers for all its worth. Alex William Brunjes’ costumes played an important role in this fashion oriented world where they were all constantly moving as if the clothes were the door to their hidden bodies. The had to keep showing off their glittering dresses, highlighting their platform heels, wriggling around in those tight form fitting pants, appealing to the repressed desires of the whole audience. Sex permeates the theatre, sexual attraction illuminates the bodies as they all appear to be hot wired to capture the waves of desire that heat up the room.

It’s all fun and games until the Prince makes a choice that shocks them all, and their their world is transformed. Somehow, this half extinguished human body called Ivona changes the electricity in their world. Her lack of communication elicits uncertainty, then frustration, then anger, then paranoia, then open hostility. The one who is different must be isolated and destroyed because she is dangerous. This is a very strong symbol in a play written in the Poland of 1938. When Yvona does exhibit the slightest feeling towards the Prince, his attraction for her becomes disdain and even hate because strong desire can easily be multi-facetted. Mostly though, her passivity stimulates the King in a most perverse way and we see how her passive response to violence, elicits monstrous emotions and thoughts of murder on the part of the one in power, bringing back all the memories of the Second World War that, curiously enough, had not taken place when Gombrowicz wrote the play. There the authors visionary power is set forth as he appears to fore tell the rise of fascism and the brutality of totalitarian power in all those societies which led him to leave Poland in 1939 and move to Argentina.

In one sense then, his play is a most brilliant study of the way power functions, much in the way that Jean Genet observes the rituals of power in Le Balcon. In fact the mood did change. From the frivolously playful atmosphere of the court, the stage illuminations of the fashion show and the playful taunting of the ugly fiancé, the second part became a sexual space of sadomasochistic desires, a place of ominous shadows where the characters deep seated impulses were projected through the huge black forms on the walls. Paul Auclair’s lighting design was perfectly orchestrated to correspond to the monster rising within the king, bringing those emotions to life, just as the shadow figures behind the screens illustrated the sexual stimulation that propelled the King to murder a child and then to mistreat his wife. Leslie Cserepy’s brutish outbursts were very strong. As his high strung wife Queen Margaret, who gave off the aura of a woman sexually abused, Jaclyn Martinez turned in a performance that was on the edge of madness and controlled hysteria as she reads her books and reflects on literature. She was excellent. Simon L. Lalande as the Lord Chamberlain was a fascinating character who moved beautifully. As the King’s confident, he played a fashionista buffoon during the first part of the show but he turns into a murderous sidekick after the intermission, as he and the King plot Ivona’s death. The actor might think of bringing in a lot more sadism to that second part of his performance to complete the transformation.

The other interesting moment was the final ritual where Ivona becomes the sacrificial victim, necessary to reinstate the world as it was before. At this point, as we had already noted throughout the play, Margaret Coderre-Williams’ discrete but elegantly pastel-coloured and extremely functional set transformed itself into a cross that brought the event to its closure. During the play, the movable flats and volumes allowed them to transform the shape of the set and keep the performance moving at a continuously upbeat rate. It all came together most beautifully.

You still have two days to see Ivona, Princess of Burgundy at the University of Ottawa. It plays until Saturday March 9. For information call the theatre department at 613-562-5761

Princess Ivona by Witold Gombrowicz

Translated by Krystyna Griffith-Jones

Directed by Ekaterina Shestakova

Set design: Margaret Coderre-Williams

Lighting Design: Paul Auclair

Sound Design: Andrew Palangio

Costume, hair and make-up design: Alex William Brunjes

Cast:

Ivona                                 Lauriane Lehouillier

King                                   Leslie Cserepy

Queen                                Jaclyn Martinez

Prince                                Tony Adams

Lord Chamberlain                Simon L. Lalande

Isobel                                     Ashley Rissler

Simon                                  Cory Thibert

Cyprian                                  Jonah Allingham

Aunties:                                Alexandra Isenor and Lily Sutherland

Innocent                               Lewis Caunter

Checkers/Beggar                   Samuel Dietrich

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