In the Solitude of Cotton Fields is a piece from Stefan Zeromski Theatre in Poland. Twenty-nine year old director Radoslaw Rychcik has adapted the 1985 play of the same name by Bernard-Marie Koltés into a fiercely contemporary production. The story concerns two individuals who encounter each other on a road through a cotton field: a dealer and a client. The two enter into a sexually and physically charged exchange, but exactly what the goods are is unclear. In Rychcik’s version, the actors are both dressed in slim black suits and skinny ties. They spend almost the entirety of the piece in their own pools of light, standing about ten feet apart facing the audience, with microphones in front of them. They are backed by the house band Natural Born Chillers, whose music underscores the entire show.
To open the show, the music sounds a heavy base, and the slowly the curtain draws and two men are revealed, one twisting, one shrinking and exploding with equal energy. As this is revealed the music picks up into a fast paced electronic rhythm; haze machines go off, the glowing apple of a macbook is visible, the lights flash, the band wears white and black stripes. The scene is extremely familiar; this kind of music, the style, it is indicative of the intense popularity of raves and electronic music in the United States and Europe currently. The band and the eye makeup of the performers echoe A Clockwork Orange. What drew me to watch this piece was what I read about the director and the style of the show. It is an incredibly apt piece through which to discuss innovation in the story telling techniques of contemporary theatre, and whether they overwhelm or clarify the story. The dealer (Wojciech Niemczyk) and the client (Tomasz Nosinski) speak, sing, whisper, scream, and beg into the microphone, one expounding on the value of his goods and his dependency on the exchange, the other extolling his virtues and why he should not make the deal.
The exact nature of the deal is unclear, but in a compelling, affecting way. They could be a prostitute and a potential client, but the scene also recalls the current intense scrutiny the role of commerce in our culture. The power of the seller versus the buyer is what’s at stake here, and that power shifts frequently, with stupendous energy, precision, and sense of stakes. In addition to their tremendous control of their voices, the physical life of the performers is astounding. They writhe, twitch, convulse with a wonderful balance of intensity and ease. The movements stir questions regarding the relationship of physical images and the text of the story. Their physicalities draw out the subtext. They are not symbolic or natural in their representation of the images, they seem to embody the visceral feeling. I also wondered about the balance of choreography versus improvised movement. There was SO much movement, and it took place on such a scale that I felt it couldn’t all be set, but there was such a clear and specific vocabulary that they were using that I felt it had to be. The movements of Nosinski are particularly vibrant yet precise.
What also struck me about the piece was the relationship between the actors and the audience. As I said the performers spend the entirety of piece in their own pools of light, until they meet at the end. All of their text the speak out to the audience, not at each other. I really enjoyed that they were essentially bringing a poem to life by standing and speaking it into microphones, but with an effective sense of the stakes and the rise and fall of the action. And the text itself is fantastic. The images are striking and poignant. The power of that is giving to natural elements; the land, the hour, the moon reminded me of Lorca. Both the dealer and client give tremendous importance to the time at which they have encountered each other. The music underscores the struggle between the two wonderfully, it highlights the rise and fall of the drama. As a result, perhaps the most arresting moment of the piece comes when the dealer makes his final plea, the music goes out suddenly and we sit in total silence for a period. Then the dealer tells the client that the other’s greatest power is the ability to reject, something the dealer cannot do. He tells him the greatest cruelty is not destruction, but to leave a man unfinished, in mid-exchange, “the error of a gaze.” A huge amount of significance is placed upon this gaze, for it is how they began this struggle. In the silence the dealer says “the only thing that really matters is that you looked at me and our gaze met.” When he says this the client turns to look at him for the first time, but the dealer stays facing the audience. When he has finished his plea the dealer begins to wail, the sound building and building into the music returns, picking up the note of the dealers cry, the cry builds into a scream of pain and hate until the dealer abruptly turns and vanishes into the dark.
Up until this point I was riveted. There are a lot of people trying to do what this piece does, but it too frequently the technical elements of formal experimentation become gimmicky, their use to the story becomes unclear. Here I felt the form and the relationship to the audience worked really well because the piece was the exact opposite of what it looked like. The actors are not drug addled ravers, they are in complete control of their instrument. The piece does not indulge in shock value for no apparent reason. It was like good stage combat, the more in-control and safe it is the more effective it is, and this piece held back from many of the traps of this kind of work.
After the dealer burns himself out and retreats the client gets completely naked. At this point I was still bearing with, it seemed like the ordeal had scarred him in some way, the power of the connection between the two was such that I bought that the severing had severely damaged him. But then the stage lights go out and a screen above the band comes on and for 15-minutes we are treated to a variety of sexual, violent, and just plain weird images that ruined the piece for me. Control became indulgence, effective innovative storytelling became nonsensical shock value. I really tried but the ties to story were hopeful at best, the piece fell face first and deep into all of the traps of this kind of theatre. Eventually it returned to the two actors, and they either made a form of piece or consummated the exchange, but I had been so turned off by the previous section it really didn’t matter to me, I was thinking about what I was going to write and what I was going to do after, I waited for it to end.
Ultimately I was extremely excited to be introduced to the play itself, I think the language is beautiful and true to itself. Furthermore I think the idea is fascinating. The stakes of the encounter, the power of the seller and buyer is an extremely compelling relationship at this moment in time. I think if the relationship did not play on the sexuality as much though, I think it would be more effective. That element is certainly present in the text, but personally I think it’s more exciting if you let it affect you there, beneath the surface, don’t indulge in it, it’s inherent. Bottom line though, I really wish they didn’t have that section on the screen, because I think it could be a wonderful piece to look to as an example of how theatre can employ intensely modern conventions while valuing story above all, but it isn’t.