September 20, 2013
Return of Pola Negri
Stories of Pola Negri is a play written and directed by Kazimierz Braun and produced by the Polish Theater of Toronto, which tours with this play around the world, performing for Polish communities abroad. They have performed in such distant places as New York, Paris, Warsaw, London, Wilno, and Washington D.C., among others. I saw their show in Los Angeles. It was presented by the Modjeska Club at Magicopolis Theater, in Santa Monica on September 30.
The show was performed in Polish—it was supposed to have English subtitles, but it didn’t because of technical difficulties. Anyway, they weren’t needed much because the audience consisted predominantly of Poles, the members of the Modjeska Club and their guests. As far as I could gather, all of them spoke Polish with the exception of my American wife, Rebecca. Oh, well, she had to console herself with the fact that the performers were very expressive, so she could enjoy the show even without understanding much of what they were saying.
However, words are very important in this play, which Kazimierz Braun wrote as a psychodrama not a pantomime. He was interested more in Pola Nergi’s psyche than her gestures.
The play is written as a memoir, spoken in Pola Negri’s voice in the form of a monodrama. The initial set up of the play happens in Pola Negri’s dressing room in a Hollywood film studio in 1941. It is shortly after she has returned to America fleeing Nazi occupied Europe, and she hopes to revive her career in Hollywood. It is the same dressing room that she occupied in the 1920s during her most successful years in film. So, she has plenty of fascinating memories associated with this place. Unavoidably, returning to the old dressing room triggers Pola Negri’s memories as if they were embedded in the walls, furniture, and objects themselves. Dramatically, that place functions as a catalyst that evokes her past. This is ironic because instead of looking to the future when she returns to Hollywood as she hoped, she looks backward into the past, as if it has a hold on her.
Initially, she recalls the events that happened in that dressing room, but then she proceeds to recall crucial events and experiences of almost her entire life.
The play feels as if it is a sort of personal confession. Sometimes it is nostalgic. At other times, it seems to be driven by some compulsion to set the record straight, to say how it really was.
The performance of Agata Pilitowska as Pola Negri is superb. She carried it out with utter skills and conviction. And that was not an easy task, she was alone on the stage for about two hours telling stories about Pola Negri’s life, acting them out at the same time, and interacting with various imaginary characters, most of whom were Pola’s various lovers, of course, but also with an array of other characters.
Her dramatic transitions from one episode to another were masterful. By certain movement in space and suggestive gesture she smoothly transported the audience to another imaginary time and space. That not only showed her enormous acting skills and talent but also precise direction by Kazimierz Braun.
Stories of Pola Negri is a one-woman show performed by Agata Pilitowska, except for one scene in which she appears with another actress, Maria Nowotarska, in the role of Pola Negri’s mother. (Later I found out that Maria Nowotarska is the real mother of Agata Pilitowska.) This scene occurs in Paris where Pola Negri’s mother argues with her daughter, trying to persuade her not to return to America. It was a very moving scene. Maria Nowotarska has such sincerity of feeling in her voice that she could even move stones to tears.
As far as the content of the play is concerned, it made me wonder how does it comply with the biographic facts and to which extent Kazimierz Bran indulged in his own fantasies and preferences (not to say, prejudices.) To find it out, I would have to read Pola Negri’s biographical novel Memories of a Star, which is on hold for me in the local library, and compare. Though, when I think of it, it would be weird thing to do, knowing that Pola Negri made up many things about her life. To compare one fiction to another hoping to find out the real facts is absurd. No, no, no, the last sentence is just a joke.
Before going to see the play Stories of Pola Negri, I didn’t know much about her. For some reason, she had always evaded me. I simply didn’t have much interest in her. So, going to the play made up for my shortcomings. I am glad that I did. I enjoyed the play and learned a lot about Pola Negri.
To write this review, I committed myself to further study about Pola Negri. But the more I study about her, the more I realize that I would never write anything about her on my own. I’ve just watched two movies that she starred in, Carman and Sumurun, and although I recognized her extraordinary acting skills and talent, I am not able to become infatuated with her, not to say, fall in love.
It seems that Pola Negri is not my thing.
Whatever, I shall not go on with it and hope you find someone who really worships Pola Negri and has true calling to write about her. I don’t. Frankly, she makes me sick. I am not into vamps and female fatale. Though, I know, Pola Negri was not only that, she was also and foremost a star—a rare gift that is impossible to either explain or to perform. I believe Pola Negri did not understand it herself, and yet she knew that she had it. So she shined. She was radiant. It is a matter more of the spirit than of the body. Pola’s body was insignificant. It is not that she was ugly; I would say she was even pretty, but nothing special. Though she had beautiful, large, exotic eyes with often half-open and/or half-closed somewhat heavy eyelids. It made her look mysterious, at times, demonic, and at times, mischievous, as if there were a secret partly revealed and yet partly veiled. You may say, just an old witchy trick. Maybe, but she pulled it off. She pulled off many tricks, not all of them were first rate, in fact, many were melodramatic, banal, and kitschy. However, this star thing was not a trick, it was real. I repeat she really had it. And that was interesting. I immediately feel inspired.
Because of this inner stardom, Pola Negri deserves to be immortalized. I believe that she was not quite human. Stars are inhuman, are they not? They are either divine or demonic or both. Pola Negri was both—probably more demonic than divine.