Story: The Julius Slowacki Theatrical Society, a troupe that has performed mostly comedies for the St. Louis Polish community since 1909 at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Polish National Catholic Church, is getting ready to present its version of a 19th century masterpiece by acclaimed Polish playwright Aleksander Fredro.
The play is called Zemsta (Revenge) and is presented in the style of Fredro’s octosyllabic verse. It’s 1933 and the Great Depression is well under way as well as insidious international developments in Germany, where Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party have taken power.
With the play about to begin, the Slowacki Players are one member short of the required actors. They hear a laborer singing nearby and encourage him to join them. He’s black, not Polish, but they all are united with an amiable spirit to perform Zemsta for their audience.
Zemsta tells the story of two men who have feuded for more than 30 years over a castle of which each owns one half. Klara, the niece and ward of Czesnik, is in love with Waclaw Milczek, son of the notary Milczek, Czesnik’s arch-enemy and owner of the other half of said castle.
Czesnik employs the outrageous braggart Papkin to make life miserable for Milczek, but Papkin generally only makes a mess of everything. When the lusty widow Hanna learns about Czesnik’s fortune, she attempts to seduce him into marrriage. At the same time, Milczek devises a scheme for Hanna, the erstwhile lover of Waclaw, to marry his son in order to claim her own estate.
Everyone, it seems, is motivated by money except Waclaw and the fair Klara, who has her own ideas about marrying the man she loves. Zemsta has been a favorite with Polish audiences for centuries, and the Julius Slowacki Players are determined to do it justice.
Highlights: Upstream Theater artistic director Philip Boehm pays homage both to one of Poland’s most revered poets and playwrights and also to the rich history of Polish theater in St. Louis with Sweet Revenge, his entertaining translation of Fredro’s comic masterpiece.
Other Info: Upstream’s program for this opener of its 2017-18 season includes an essay about the history of the Julius Slowacki Theatrical Society by Tom Bratkowski. An old photo on the back of the cover of the troupe in 1959, its last year of existence, includes no fewer than four or five Bratkowskis (one is identified as Bratkowska), so it’s logical to assume that Tom and performer John Bratkowski are members of a family steeped in a love of theater.
Boehm shrewdly sets the Slowacki Society’s rendition of Fredro’s famous comedy in 1933, a time which parallels in ways our contentious modern political era. Apart from the first few lines and the ending, however, the two-act comedy is firmly set in the 18th century.
Scenic designer Patrick Huber identifies the two eras by a theatrical curtain for the Society which is raised prior to the performance as well as a backdrop of a dilapidated castle for the play-within-a-play’s setting.
Steve Carmichael contributes the lighting design which focuses on the comic moments and A.S. Freeman adds props which embellish the goings-on. Laura Hanson’s costumes reflect the time and class of the Fredro comedy with the exception of the working togs worn by the mason who joins the Slowacki Players for their performance.
Boehm’s rhyming couplets are delivered with panache by his expert ensemble, even if the poetry becomes repetitive after a while. As a director, he succeeds more in Act II, which picks up the pace and is more enjoyable than the too languid first half.
There is wonderful work by all in the tightly-knit ensemble. Whit Reichert and John Contini parry and thrust with their best, or worst, verbal jabs as the conniving Czesnik and scheming Milczek, respectively, raising eyebrows and feigning indignation to a fine art.
John Bratkowski enjoys the lion’s share of the play’s comic moments as the blundering Papkin, a Cowardly Lion type who is big on recounting his so-called military exploits but retreats at the slightest hint of retaliation by anyone within earshot. Jane Paradise savors every line in her role of the lascivious widow Hanna, carefully aligning herself with the side likely to be most beneficial for her.
Eric Conners does triple duty as the amiable mason, Czesnik’s obedient majordomo and a befuddled cook. He excels in the show’s best scene in which the majordomo literally reads back everything to Czesnik in a letter the latter is dictating to his minion.
As the young lovers, Caitlin Mickey and Pete Winfrey are at their best refining the sharp, savvy observations of Klara and the determined efforts of Waclaw to win the hand of his true love, respectively. Mickey is especially engaging as Klara uses the hopeless desires of the jester Papkin for her own purposes.
Sweet Revenge is charming, delightful and also a subtle cautionary tale for our troubled times, as well as a nod to the rich theatrical history of The Lou.
Play: Sweet Revenge
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: October 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $25-$35; contact email@example.com or 669-6382
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of ProPhotoSTL.com