I had the pleasure of experiencing Anna Karasinska’s Fantasia last night at Centaur Theatre.
Karasinska is a young Polish director whose plays emphasize formal simplicity and textual richness with processes informed by her Buddhist practice: “I would say that the Buddhist influence is reflected in my view of art as a means of letting go”, she says in an interview transcribed in the program I read before viewing the show. “Viewing” and “show” are here to be understood loosely, as Karansinksa “deconstruct[s] traditional theatrical staging”, wanting the spectator to experience what is happening, “not simply watch it as a viewer”. True to her word, Fantasia is a wonderland of comic absurdity and humanistic playfulness, nudging audience members into different perspectives, if only for a few moments.
The concept is simple: six actors stand on an empty stage in soft pastel-coloured shirts and dark pants (Paula Grocholska, set and costume designer, bestowing a simplicity to the construction that allows the audience to more easily project meaning onto the actor’s performances). The house lights stay on, an effective strategy for forcing the spectator’s to consider their own surroundings in response to what is happening on stage. The director, Karasinska, sits at the back of the theatre, microphone in hand, reading stage directions. She begins by introducing herself and the actors and explaining the concept. She speaks in Polish – English and French subtitles are projected onto the back of the stage – names an actor, followed by the phrase “is playing someone…”, changing the ending of the sentence every time. The actor spends a few seconds as that person, and then Karasinska prompts another actor with another person to play. This goes on, in varying forms, for the duration of the hour-long show. Sometimes the characters enter into short scenes, speak to one another after Karasinska reads their lines to them. Sometimes they move about the stage dramatically, miming an object or person. For the most part, the actor stands in place and simply convey what they are able to about the character’s experience through their eyes and extremely subtle body language.
It’s a daring exercise that pays off. The six actors are incredibly well-suited to the specific character work being done on stage. Each one plays the minute detail of the person they inhabit for those few seconds with a gentle precision, often provoking laughs of acknowledgment from the audience. It is all the more impressive that they are, for much of the show, improvising. There are a few short scenes where it is clear there has been a discussion of staging – most notably two sharp lighting cues, one played for laughs, the other for a creeping sense of dread – but as Karasinska explains from the beginning, the actors are being given descriptions of people they haven’t heard before. It is this sense of surprise and honesty that lends the show authenticity. It is a warming thing to watch the actor as themselves respond to the prompt, and then dive fully into inhabiting the character. It is this transformation, played again and again, which creates in the audience a sense of belonging and compassion for others. We begin to see how each person we pass on the street, sit next to in the theatre, or hear about in the news, is investing fully in their life, just as we are, just as the actors are. We see that all the world is a stage.
Major props to the actors: Agata Buzek, Dobromir Dymecki, Rafal Mackowiak, Maria Maj, Zofia Wichlacz, and Adam Woronowicz for their generosity and talent. This is a show that relies heavily on the skill of its actors, and they pull it off ably. Director and performer Anna Karasinska has been called “a virus in Polish theatre”, a title that can be interpreted in many ways. Like her actors and the characters they play, she is much more than her description. Go and see “Fantasia” and discover for yourself this unique and surprising theatrical experience.
The 13th Annual Festival TransAmériques presents
May 24 + 25 + 26 at 7pm
55 minutes duration
In Polish with English and French subtitles
453 Rue Saint-François-Xavier, Montréal, QC H2Y 2T1
514 844 3822 / 1 866 984 3822