April 29, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Ameryka," Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, April 19-29, 2018
In Brief: While not quite the thrill ride promised in its publicity materials, Ameryka impresses mightily with its compelling, stylized interpretation of – who knew? – the parallels and juxtapositions of Polish and American history, from each nation’s fight for independence in the Eighteenth Century to the struggle for civil rights and social justice in the modern era.
Gifted writing, meticulous directing, and persuasive acting can transform just about any idea into a crackerjack theatrical experience. In a panoramic presentation of events and personalities that determined the fates of the U.S. and Poland over 240 years, the Critical Mass Performance Group’s staging of Ameryika achieves precisely that.
The Critical Mass Performance Group production of "Ameryka." (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)
Nancy Keystone both wrote and directed this unusual, insightful political drama. We quickly learn that the Polish general and engineer Tadeusz Kosciuszko played a little known but important role in the Revolutionary War by designing and building the bridges and military fortifications George Washington needed to defeat the British.
That’s one of several touchstones in Keystone’s regardful play that aims at first to contrast our fight for independence from Britain with, a few years later, Poland’s unsuccessful war for freedom from Russia. Kosciuszko led the Polish forces and, like Washington, went on to become a national hero, but it would be 200 years before the Poles finally achieved some form of democracy.
The course of the two nations diverged during that time. The U.S. grew into a world superpower. Poland languished under repressive Russian rule. And then, the destinies of both countries would converge one more time in the latter half of the Twentieth Century as the struggle for Civil Rights embroiled America and the Solidarity movement for social justice broke out in Poland.
Director Nancy Keystone takes a stylized approach to "Ameryka." (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)
In a non-linear narrative that moves back and forth in time randomly, though fluidly, Keystone uses these sweeping events – along with historical figures from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan CIA director William J. Casey – to do more than show the coincidental similarities between the histories of the two nations. She makes a strong statement about the evils of totalitarianism and racism, too.
Hypocrisy, no matter the form of government, is another major concern of hers. Yes, Americans established a free society, but not everyone had equal rights. Of course, that’s still true to this day.
Keystone presents the communist version of this in a pithy scene at the government-run Central Film Distribution Office in Warsaw in 1959. The bureau’s head earnestly describes the American western High Noon as a movie about “the inherent weakness in individualistic, capitalist system, in which people are concerned only for themselves, refusing to unite for the common good.”
The production takes place on a bare stage, save for a few chairs and piles of bricks which the actors sometimes drop or assemble in various formations. The meaning of this metaphor isn't made entirely clear. Keystone orchestrates other stylistic conventions, as well. She often choreographs formalized movement patterns that her actors perform either in unison or as if in a ballet.
Somehow it all works to strong dramatic, emotional, and intellectual effect.