One thing I truly adore about Art is how, at its best, it opens my mind to something new, something extraordinary. In the case of right left with heels by Sebastian Majewski, that proved very much the case.
The two-woman play tells the story of post-WWII Poland from the narrow and very personal viewpoint of a pair of matched inanimate objects. Specifically, a pair of shoes once worn by Magda Goebbels (wife of the Nazi Minister of Propaganda--she and her husband poisoned their children before committing suicide themselves as the Soviets closed in). Right (Lindsay Plake) and Left (Alexa Yeames) face quite a challenge in making us believe in them as a pair of shoes. With the help of director Frederique Michel they succeed--but there's a lot more here than believing a pair of shoes might feel.
After all, this ain't Disney. Not by a long shot.
In fact, this has proven a very controversial play back in its homeland of Poland. The reasons why aren't immediately obvious to an American, but here's a precis:
Poland as a nation has had its history re-written several times in living memory, even more often when you look further back. Portions of it have gone back and forth between Russia and Germany for instance. The Nazis made a point of trying to exterminate not only racial minorities in that nation but also the entire intelligentsia--the professors, historians, intellectuals, etc. Of course then came decades of Soviet Rule, a police state just as brutal in many ways if not as openly psychotic as National Socialists. Over time, and with Stalin's death, things slowly got better and then the Solidarity Movement eventually led to free elections and a break from Communist dictatorship. A re-examination of the past was part of that, along with a lifting of censorship. Street names in cities changed (not for the first time). Until recently, when a Right Wing Government won election, praising the "good old days" of authoritarianism and people simply doing what they were told.
The Polish consulate (who celebrated the fantastic LA premiere of Our Class a few years ago) promised financial support to the City Garage for putting on this play. And then they very suddenly reneged. Remember how the Dixie Chicks were almost lynched for criticizing President Bush that one time? That is the kind of thing we're talking about.
So...why? What's all the fuss about a play whose central characters are a pair of shoes? Because the play explores what happened to Poland in those long decades between the Second World War and today. The shoes themselves tell their story twice -- the second time with much greater (and often horrific) detail. So we see that history twice, experience it from different perspectives given greater context. The owners of the shoes vary a great deal, from a doctor's wife to a theatre company and finally a drag queen murdered in an act of "patriotism." Along the way, we the audience find much of what we believe under question. Not merely in terms of good guys versus bad guys, but about innocence despite one's origins, the troubling process of learning about our own past and how we re-imagine it for our own purposes (after all, it isn't as if governments thought that up on their own).
In the end, my mind was blown, not only for the expansive nature of questions asked--and in that microcosm so much of LIFE ends up explored--but so many remain unanswered. The playwright, the performers, the director and whole production team aren't interested in telling you what to do. Such remains our job.
A very hard, tricky and important job. Which a pair of shoes made for one of the worst women ever to live reminds us to do. Not that they themselves realize that!
right left with heels plays Fridays and Saturdays 8:00pm, Sundays (which are pay-what-you-can at the door) at 3pm until August 14, 2016, at the City Garage, Bergamot Arts Center 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404.