The Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Center, Grand and Olive, St. Louis

Sweet Revenge

Ran Oct 6 – 22, 2017

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

From the celebrated 19th century Polish playwright Aleksander Fredro comes his most popular work, Zemsta, a comedy in verse. Now titled Sweet Revenge, this sophisticated comedy reappears in a sparkling translation by Philip Boehm, who also directed this production. He calls it “a sympathetic satire” and, indeed, it is brimming with wit and warmth in his hands.

Adding an additional conceit to the evening, we are to pretend that this is a production of the Slowacki Dramatic Circle in the 1930’s, a real St. Louis company. At the outset, we are prompted to stand for the Polish national anthem while company members peer out at us from under the curtain! It gets better. It turns out that the most thoroughly engaging performance of the evening is that by John Bratkowski, whose family was active in the Slowacki group. (More about him later.)

The plot of the play concerns the long-standing dispute between the aging owners of a castle’s two halves, Czesnik (the volcanic old soldier), and Milczek (the hypocritical notary). These sworn enemies, fallen on hard times, are presently busy warring over a wall and concocting schemes to outdo the other. Czesnik desires a marriage with the wealthy widow Podstolina and sends the impoverished nobleman Papkin to plead his case. The wedding is arranged, but meanwhile the crafty Milzcek plots to wed his son Waclaw to the widow instead. The lusty Podstolina agrees to his plan as she has set her sights on Waclaw. Poor Waclaw, who passionately loves Klara, Czesnik’s ward, is consumed with anguish, while the jilted Czesnik works himself into such an extraordinary state of apoplexy that it seems as if he might unscrew his own head.

All is in chaos -- the young lovers at risk of separation, Papkin convinced that he has been poisoned by Milzcek, and Czesnik about to implode. But at the last moment the old fellow has a stroke of imagination instead, and generously saves the day for everyone. This short version of the plot only hints at the hilarious emotional encounters of these characters – gleeful spite, ardent wooing, outrageous posturing, unbridled lust and violent swordplay – all enacted in a farcical style that will set you weeping with laughter.

In the role of Czesnik, Whit Reichert is at one moment a general vainly trying to summon his “troops,” a man trapped in agonized frustration, and someone’s dear old uncle. His apoplectic fit near the end of the play is one of the funniest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.

Meanwhile his nemesis, Milczek, as underplayed by John Contini, seems an exact opposite. The tall, slender Contini is a comic Machiavelli, an unscrupulous schemer working to undo Czesnik. The scene in which he attempts to construct an assault and battery case against his enemy out of the wounded little finger of his mason could be right out of Moliere.

As his naïve young son with a surprising past, Pete Windrey is ardent and charming in his attempts to capture the hand of Czesnik’s pretty ward Klara. In a passage of lyrical beauty Winfrey suggests a real talent for such material and has a natural gift for comedy. He is very effective in this role. Klara, is played by the striking Caitlin Mickey, who displays flashes of real temperament and considerable wit and feminine cunning.

In the role of the lusty widow Podstolina, Jane Paradise is all one could hope for. With her dark good looks and her awareness of her womanly charms, she moves through the play with great style and subtlety. Her unabashed seduction of young Waclaw is extremely funny, a kind of impromptu Apache dance, from which the young man struggles to escape. Ms. Paradise is an accomplished comedienne and sounds all the notes in her character’s repertoire, especially those in her siren song with Waclaw.

Supporting all the developments in this onrushing plot is the talented Eric J. Conners in three small roles (the majordomo, the cook and the mason), a small stock company of one!

Which brings me to the outstanding characterization in this consistently pleasurable evening – John Bratkowski’s Papkin. Looking a bit like a battered Nutcracker in his ill-fitting, overly large military coat, long, long sword at his side, he stands before us, the braggart courtier, down at the heels, but head erect, having shed all the unpleasant qualities of his Roman/Italian literary ancestors (the Milos Gloriosus and Il Capitano). This is a character to love. The wildly extravagant stories he spins in which he is always the hero are his gift to us, his colorful, imaginative take on the world as it could be, and when it is discovered that his tales are untrue, he seems almost surprised! It takes little to make him happy -- a decent glass of wine, a few coins, a smile from a pretty girl. Playing the go-between with great esprit and generosity, he involves himself in everyone’s intrigues, only to be convinced by evening’s end that he has been fatally poisoned by Milzcek. In the last few minutes of the play while the plot spins to a conclusion around him, he struggles to write his Last Will and Testament, even as the desk on which he is composing it is constantly snatched from under him. In a beautifully realized performance, Mr. Bratkowski captures the vulnerability, the sweetness of this romantic soul, and his appreciation for high adventure. A survivor on constantly shifting ground, an amiable buffoon with a beating heart. The actor’s portrayal of this would-be Cyrano is perceptive, sympathetic, and extremely funny.

And then there is the talented director/translator of this inspired comedy, Philip Boehm, with his many gifts, including the gathering of such high quality talent for this production. Given his lively, supple translation with its flexible, witty language and delicious innuendo, it would seem that his excellent actors have been conversing in rhyming schemes from their cradles. There is a hint of the commedia here as they cavort throughout the evening, giving full physical expression to their unruly passions. (I am still laughing.) Mr. Boehm is a rare talent and how lucky we are to have him.

Adding to our pleasure were the physical elements of the production: Patrick Huber’s amusing backdrop and side sets suggesting the remnants of a moldering castle; Laura Hanson’s imaginative, handsome costumes; and Steve Carmichael’s appropriate lighting.

Thank you, Philip Boehm, and your staff and the talented artists with whom you work for the wonderful production.

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