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A CurtainUp Review
The Street of Crocodiles

By Allan Wallach

The Theatre de Complicite's production of The Street of Crocodiles is a succession of hallucinatory images, changing restlessly like the colorful patterns in a spinning kaleidoscope. Although based on the autobiographical works of Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), the influential Jewish writer slain by a Gestapo officer in his Polish hometown, it is less a play than an evocation, accurately described by its subtitle: "A Dance of the Mind."

As it demonstrated on Broadway last season with its widely admired revival of Ionesco's The Chairs, the London-based Theatre de Complicite is a probing and inventive troupe known for its daring blend of movement, rhythms and imagery. With Crocodiles, the company summons up the essence of Schulz's formative experiences in masterly stage pictures that are swiftly transformed into new and surprising ones. First presented six years ago at the Royal National Theater, the piece is now deepening Lincoln Center Festival 98 (though staged nearby, in the John Jay College Theater). Artistic director Simon McBurney, the production's director (and, with Mark Wheatley, the co-adaptor), wrote in a program note that the company-devised piece is "a brush with Schulz's imagination." Drawing on stories in two books, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," he adds, "We have attempted to create a peculiar theater language, a fabric that might hold some of the scents falling from the jacket of Schulz' prose."

The theater language is striking and disorienting. Evoking the rare birds that Schulz' father raised in the family attic, actors flutter the pages of books and strut and preen like peacocks. To suggest the tedium of a family dinner, two actors perch on the wall, their legs swinging like pendulums. When the father opens his ledger for August, sunlight seems to radiate from it and create a summertime idyll.

More striking still is the resourceful use of cloth, suggested by the father's mystical belief in the properties of the material used in his tailor shop. ("The fabric of life," he says in one of several philosophical discourses, "can be found within the weave of a cloth.") A large bolt of fabric can be a tablecloth one moment, a beach-like expanse the next, and the covering of the father's sanatorium bed at another point. Toward the end, yards of white cloth unwind to fill the stage with billowing waves. Music that had been lyrical in more tender moments becomes suddenly ominous.

The Schulz-figure, here called Joseph (hauntingly played by Cesar Sarachu), is initially seen toward the end of his life, a "useful Jew" sorting library books to be destroyed by the Nazis. One heavy tome recalls his days in provincial Drohobycz, and suddenly, his father (Matthew Scurfield), is seen "walking" down the high rear wall. Other members of his household emerge magically from strange places - a small barrel, a trolley containing banned books. Amid a clutter of chairs and a clatter of desks, they are transformed into a class of unruly students, whom Joseph is attempting to teach woodworking. The banging of pieces of wood echoes the forbidding thud of marching feet heard by Joseph. The family maid Adela (Bronagh Gallagher) is an ambiguous figure, a temptress who awakens sexual longings in the young Joseph and a Nazi-like despot who destroys his father's birds in a brutal "dance of destruction."

Throughout the production's hour and 45 minutes, sounds and sights become haunting reminders of the Holocaust that will consume the family. Nazi horrors are recalled by shards of broken dishes, fire and smoke erupting from an oven, the rocking of people in a simulated railroad car. Interspersed with these foreshadowings of mass destruction are gentle family moments. Joseph's father, "that fencing master of imagination," relieves the dinnertime boredom with pranks and light remarks. Joseph's mother (Annabel Arden) is given some of the author's poetic musings. ("Who can understand the great and sad machinery of spring?") McBurney expresses the hope that the company's imagination may touch that of viewers, inspiring them to read Schulz' books. His indelible production, with its reminders of Nazi book-burning, brings Schulz' writing to vivid life while making it clear that the ideas and emotions contained in books can survive the fires.

Based on stories by Bruno Schulz
Devised by the Theatre de Complicite company
Directed by Simon McBurney
Designed by Rae Smith
Lighting design by Paule Constable
Sound design by Chris Shutt
With: Cesar Sarachu (Joseph), Matthew Scurfield (The Father), Annabel Arden (The Mother), Clive Mendus (Uncle Charles), Charlotte Medcalf (Agatha), Antonio Gil Martinez (Cousin Emil), Bronagh Gallagher (Adela), Asta Sighvats (Maria), Eric Mallett and Stefan Metz (Shop Assistants).
Presented as part of Lincoln Center Festival 98
John Jay College Theater performances began July 16 for a limited run through July 26. Reviewed 7/17/98 by Allan Wallach

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© Elyse Sommer, July 1998