It is a rare experience to leave a theatre feeling deeply impressed with high octane performances and creative skill while simultaneously feeling absolutely at sea about the content of the show you just watched. Katyń at La Mama Courthouse delivered this experiential paradox with Jim Daly and Carolyn Bock showcasing immense theatrical talent in their performance of a seemingly impenetrable script by Daly.
Katyń is a reference to the Katyń massacre in 1940 where 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectuals were executed by the Soviet Union. The show begins with audience members being ushered into the theatre in “bus loads”, led by a uniformed Daly shouting orders to get moving even while audience members were queueing up for tickets and drinks. An environment of chaos and stress was established, and an expectation of unpredictability immediately added to the mix upon entry into the theatre. Bock (playing “Stalina”) already on stage wearing nothing but underwear and a pair of bright red shoes, greeted the audience in a persona no less powerful or intimidating than Daly’s. Once the audience were all seated, Daly then undressed down to his underwear, and then began the performance. The next 80 minutes I found myself cycling in waves of awed engagement and disorienting confusion.
This show packed in a lot in terms of stylistic choices and techniques, changing settings and tones and characters (and even accents) every few minutes. The only things that remained constant were the actors’ costumes and incredible energy levels. Daly and Bock slipped in and out of the changing scenes with remarkable ease despite the breathtaking speed of said changes, and remained unscathed by the whiplash that audience members certainly experienced. It felt as though the audience was given very little to hold on to, and this seemed bizarrely intentional. There was a distinct lack of points of stability from which I personally felt that I could begin to hook into any semblance of a storyline, or retain any of the information being presented. The few times I did feel like I was beginning to follow, something unexpected would happen, such as actors breaking the fourth wall, or descending into scripted nonsense, almost as if to gaslight the audience into feeling like there was never any intended meaning to start with.
Watching Bock and Daly in Katyń felt very much like a stereotypical experience often described around abstract fine art masterpieces in art galleries: I could see that there was great skill involved in the making of this show, I could appreciate the incredible performances, but I could not for the life of me work out what any of it meant. Or if there even was intended meaning. If there was, I certainly did not have the tools to interpret it.