Princess Ivona at the PAI

photoThere’s nothing quite like exploring a nascent theatre company’s work and a space that I’ve never been in before both in one fell swoop.

The Collected Works, a new company helmed by director Michael Hunter and actor Barry Kendall, has just launched into its inaugural show, Princess Ivona, by the 20th century Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz.

The venue is the Performance Art Institute, a cavernous yet convivial warehouse-style space located down a back alley in the clubby SOMA district of San Francisco.

The company performs the first act of Gombrowicz’s sprawling allegorical piece about the power of an outsider to shake up the establishment through silence in the spacious lobby area of the PAI. Studded with lights and warmly shaped by a central water feature and scattered couches and chairs, the lobby proves to be a wonderful space in which to warm an audience up for what lies ahead. The bar also helps in this regard.

For the rest of the two and half hour play (the script of which could use some hefty editing) the audience is ushered into the main staging area. It’s cold and dark in there. The chairs are arranged in such a way that you have to turn your head to the left or to the right like watching a tennis match to follow the action.

Perhaps Hunter wishes with his blocking to suggest the coldness and alienation that exists between the courtly characters and between these people and Ivona, a peasant girl who’s brought to court as a kind of practical joke made out of boredom.

In the final scene, set at a banquet, the production team makes wonderful use of video projections. Our perspective on the event is fascinatingly altered, as the camera projects onto the wall images of the courtiers eating and drinking as viewed from above.

The Collected Works, a company which has more PhDs in it than I think I’ve ever seen in a single acting troupe, tries to make the most of the enticing staging possibilities of PAI. But there’s still some way to go in terms of creating a fully immersive experience for the audience. Many scenes are hard to watch because they happen too far to the right or left for sections of the audience to see without getting cricks in their necks. And the space is unforgiving in terms of lighting. Half of the time, action happens in the shadows, I think somewhat unintentionally, as the actors struggle to find their light.

Oh, and one more thing: Meredith Axelrod‘s musical interludes are a highlight of the production. The plum-voiced vocalist/guitarist wanders about playing and singing like a troubadour in between the acts of the play, reflecting through song on the action. I’d like to get her on my show to talk about old American ballads.  She’s obviously expert at this repertoire.

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