An Apt Show for New York: The Street of Crocodiles

Fifty-six years after a Gestapo agent in a Nazi-occupied Galician-Polish-Ukrainian town put two bullets into the fertile brain of Bruno Schulz, the Theatre de Complicite brought to the Lincoln Center Festival in July a luminous production based on his quivering, surrealist short stories. “Based on” in this case does not mean that the show “dramatizes” the stories-an impossible proposition, since the stories are prose-poems of miraculous compression and evocation. Rather, in this U.S. premiere, an impeccable cast incarnated Schulz’s mysterious language in an unforgettable succession of scenes called The Street of Crocodiles and subtitled-the only inadequate thing about this stellar performance-”A Dance of the Mind.”

It was an extraordinary challenge to create the equivalent of sentences like these, which open Schulz’s first book, published in 1934 as Cinnamon Shops , now available as The Street of Crocodiles (as translated by Celina Wieniewska): “In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.” Unlike many surrealists, Schulz did not muscle symbols into arch juxtapositions. He did not shout out that he was straining to crystallize dreams into material. Strangeness was so normal to him, it was his very medium, in language as in drawings and paintings alike. His world of family mishegoss was filled with vegetables that looked like dead squids, colors that fell “like octaves,” rooms that seemed to have sunk to the bottom of the sea, crickets that scream in a “thick rain of fire” on an August afternoon. Schulz’s writing shines with a love of material things and at the same time a sensuous distrust, evoking a world where shape-shifting is normal and family lunacy seethes behind the wardrobe door. The reader cannot help but be aware that the mystery is suspended between epochs of barbarism and that gunshots and unimaginable suffering awaited at the end of the delicate life that imagined all this.

To get the spirit of this literary masterpiece on the stage! Like all great translations, the Theatre de Complicite re-creates the spirit of the text. Banal physical objects come to life on stage. Birds flock. Sheets unfurl, inanimate objects suddenly animated. Broken dishes seek their opposite numbers, like halved Platonic souls in search of their counterparts. It is 1942. In dry-icy dankness, with the sound of water dripping, the stage is set as the library where the 50-year-old Schulz-like character Joseph (Cesar Sarachu), declared a “useful Jew,” has been put to work sorting books, some to be catalogued, others destroyed. As German boots stomp by, Joseph goes into a reverie. Members of his family and household squirm and slither onto the stage, one climbing face-forward down the rear wall, others squirming upward from within various vessels, then rolling about on the floor while they recite their lines.

Joseph’s wild invalid father believes that life inhabits inanimate things, and on stage, too, banality and imprisonment set mysteries in motion. At the center of the sketches that follow is the father (Matthew Scurfield), “that fencing master of the imagination,” orchestrating “colorful and splendid counter-offensives of fantasy against the boredom that strangled the city.” Joseph père , a luftmensch who thinks that “nature uses man,” is convinced that “lifelessness … is only a disguise behind which lie unknown forms of life. Wood is alive.” “In old apartments,” his father raves at length, “are rooms which are sometimes forgotten, … saturated with the emanations of numerous existences and events; used-up atmospheres, rich in the specific ingredients of human dreams; rubbish heaps, abounding in the humus of memories, of nostalgia, and of sterile boredom.” So, too, do actors transmogrify into birds.

Joseph , gaunt and bewildered, wanders through these parables of exaltation and frailty like a delicate pilgrim taking refuge in a doomed, magical kingdom. The sickly Schulz, a reluctant secondary school teacher, lived his life in a provincial trap. Here we see him peopling his trap with astounding inventions, where nothing can be taken for granted. To Joseph as to his father, “an electric bell is an ordinary mystification.” Birds are made to be raised in his father’s shop. A maid’s leg is a promise, or threat, of seduction. Things are choreographed with breathtaking precision.

How can the audience, like the reader, not know that the fantasies are taking place within brackets, like Schulz’s doomed existence in Nazi captivity? There are no salvations for Bruno Schulz, who suffered from, among other things, a terrible case of geography. And yet the humor is raucous, the seductiveness evident. The marching goose steps end the reverie as they began it. The gunshots sound, ending Bruno’s life. In the final tableau, the fallen Bruno, down to his underwear and socks, is rolled from lap to lap down a line formed by his father and the other characters, enfolded by all the dead as his life has been enfolded into the remnants of his imagination. The image is excruciatingly moving.

The acting is uniformly impeccable, the staging a gorgeous succession of shadowy movements. Each one of the actors deserves tremendous praise: aside from the above-mentioned, Annabel Arden, Clive Mendus, Charlotte Medcalf, Antonio Gil Martinez, Bronagh Gallagher, Astá Sighvats, Eric Mallett and Stefan Metz. The direction by Simon McBurney, co-founder and director of the Theatre de Complicite, is superb, as is the adaptation he did with Mark Wheatley. There is a movie crying to be made here, if any producer in the so-called independent cinema wanted to get out from under 20-something angst and make the sun truly dance for a change.