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By Robert W. Bethune, guest critic
What’s it all about, being who you are? It’s about who you WISH you were. That’s what David Ives is writing about in “Polish Joke.” If you’re Polish, is your life a Polish joke? Only if you get hit by the bus you’re trying to catch. That’s what happens to Ives’ central character, Jasiu Sadlovski (if I heard that right), also known as John Sadler, also known as the person lost in his own dreams about his life.
The play is a thematic collage of sketches: Jasiu as a boy learning the meaning of life from his uncle Roman, a meaning tightly connected to beer with eggs and salt in it; kielbasa drying in the living room; playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” on the accordion; and losing the inner torch of his vocation for the priesthood. The dreams are the heart of it. He dreams of trying to buy flowers, though the salesgirl can’t see or hear him. He dreams of having to prove he’s Irish – by singing “Danny Boy” really well – before he can buy a one-way ticket to Ireland. He dreams that his plane to Ireland is diverted to Warsaw, where he meets the Polish woman who definitively proves to him that he really isn’t Polish. So he marries her – segue to real life – and becomes truly Polish at last. He learns that nobody in Poland drinks beer with eggs and salt, and he comes back to where he started, with Uncle Norman, and breaks the truth to him.
It’s funny. David Ives takes his theme seriously without taking himself seriously. There’s more than enough ethnic humor to go around, and some of it might even prickle the prickly.
We hear this story from the horse’s mouth. David Kowalcyzk plays Jasiu. Greg Trazaskoma plays Uncle Roman and two other parts. Kori Bielaniec plays the Nurse and Enid. And we have two delightful dancers in full Polish regalia, Aaron Tabaczynski and Jozefa Chmielewski.
Yolanda Fleischer’s direction is key to the show’s success. Pacing is excellent. Characters have just enough time to get hit by the next bus coming along, pick themselves up and then move on to catch up with it before it leaves.
The setting by Melina Pacha features a large projection screen. We see images of Jasiu’s life and images of Jaisu himself, his face fragmenting along with his sense of self. The set reminded me of a carnival sideshow, with elements lighting up as we move from place to place while a few bits and pieces of furniture get whisked on and off.
At least one of the stagehands is a mystery woman, a silhouette in a trench coat and fedora out of a 40’s noir movie, but we never learn anything more about her.
The Theatre Company at The University of Detroit Mercy at the Marygrove College Theatre, W. McNichols at Wyoming, Detroit. Fri.-Sun., through Dec. 3. Tickets: $15. For information: 313-993-3270 or http://theatre.udmercy.edu