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Festen (The Celebration)

TR Warszawa presents a stunning stage adaptation of the film about an unusual birthday party. logo
Andrzej Chyra and Jan Peszek
in Festen (The Celebration)
(© Pavel Antonov)
Polish theater company TR Warszawa has a knack for staging productions that sear themselves into your mind. Their signature sets, barren yet strangely epic, are utilitarian at heart (furniture arranged neatly in sections to represent the plays' different locales) but possess an unmistakable visual flair. In Grzegorz Jarzyna's stunning production of Festen (The Celebration), now at St. Ann's Warehouse, a massive dining table sits upstage with a glistening array of place settings and intensely bright colored fruit. Lit by Jacqueline Sobiszewski, it looks eerily good and sets the mood for what's to follow.

Although it's adapted by Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov, the creators of the film of the same name, the play feels like a complete entity of its own. From the moment Christian (Andrzej Chyra) arrives at the estate of his father, Helge (Jan Peszek), for the latter's 60th birthday party, the action unfolds in a theatrically abstract way.

Rather than waste time separating cross-cut scenes from the film, we're quickly introduced to over a dozen family members as they get ready for the big event. We also get fragments of conversations Christian has with his dead sister, Helene (played alternately by Danuta Stenka and Katarzyna Herman), that start to reveal the family secret he's been holding.

Reality and illusion are separated by a fine line, and Jarzyna lets the audience do the work of distinguishing the two. While this can lead to some truly confounding moments -- or at least a little head-scratching -- it also proves to be quite fun. For at its core, Festen is about an experience felt rather than fully understood.

For example, when Christian first gets up and accuses his father of raping him and Helene when they were kids, it seems absurd; but as we spend more time with these people, it becomes harder to know the truth.

The first act, which runs a whopping 105 minutes, flies by quickly; while the second, only twenty minutes long, ends abruptly leaving us wanting more. Usually such lopsided time structures are a signal of deeper structural failings, but here it feels right.

True, there's a huge shift between the acts that demands a pause for contemplation and conversation. And the final moment is still puzzling. But so must this weekend be for these characters at this unusual "celebration."

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