For Poland's Teatr Zar, hearing is believing

Alternative troupe uses polyphony to tell the story

Ditte Berkeley and Kamila Klamut in “Caesarean Section,’’ created by Teatr Zar. Ditte Berkeley and Kamila Klamut in “Caesarean Section,’’ created by Teatr Zar. (Lukasz Giza)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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“There’s a lot of great traditional theater in Boston, and we like to offer something that is alternative,’’ says Jennifer Johnson, co-director of the Charlestown Working Theater.

You likely won’t see anything more alternative this year than Poland’s Teatr Zar, which performs “Caesarean Section’’ in its East Coast premiere Sunday through Wednesday at the Charlestown Working Theater. The troupe combines early Christian polyphony, onstage musicians, and concepts of theater and movement developed by the late Polish innovator Jerzy Grotowski. Oh, and there’s a 20-foot line of broken glass in the middle of the stage. (Thanks, Diablo Glass School of Roxbury.)

Boiled down to its essence, the idea here is that at its deepest level, theater is about hearing as much as seeing, and that the body of an actor singing communicates on a more profound level.

When pushed, those who know “Caesarean Section’’ say that it has to do with oppression, freedom and our right to chose how our lives will end.

“To me it’s about repression of women,’’ says artistic director Stacy Klein of Ashfield’s Double Edge Theatre, which is co-presenting the performances. “It has the metaphor of Kristallnacht. The whole set is related to that night, glass breaking, glass shattering. It’s very strong in the whole piece. It takes that into the interior, where two women are trying to become free and realize themselves and they’re being repressed.

“It’s very touching. You really feel emotionally engaged with these women, and that’s also unusual for this kind of theater. It’s very human,’’ Klein says.

But Klein and Johnson say theater-goers should experience the show for themselves, because what Teatr Zar does is not easily explained.

“Out of that series of images and sounds, every spectator could create his or her own story,’’ Teatr Zar founder Jaroslaw Fret says on the phone from San Francisco. “Sometimes people ask me about ‘Caesarean Section’: ‘What’s it about, the story, the narration?’ I say, ‘Come on, if you are listening to music, you are not asking what it’s about.’ ’’

“Finally, if I have to answer to a spectator, ‘Caesarean Section’ is about what you as spectators, as our guests, what you feel watching the ‘Caesarean Section’ performance. . . . It’s just staging pure emotions, our emotions, linked with your emotions,’’ says Fret, who is also director of the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, Poland.

‘‘Zar’’ is the name of funeral songs performed by the Svaneti tribe of the Caucasus, lamentations said to touch on something essential about life and death. Members of Teatr Zar visited the region and other early- and pre-Christian cultures over several years, researching polyphony that became the basis of their theater.

The music in “Caesarean Section’’ was developed from pieces gathered over two or three years, mostly from Corsica and Georgia, with bits from Bulgaria, Chechnya, and Iceland. The movements and staging were developed in parallel, then brought together in a short, intense period of a couple of months, Fret said.

Klein and other Double Edge members were at a festival in Poland in 2008 when their hosts announced they would be taken to see Teatr Zar perform the piece. Klein was less than enthused about going but didn’t want to offend her hosts. The combination of early music and second-hand Grotowski technique sounded unappealing, she says.

“We went in thinking we weren’t going to like it, and we came out totally blown away,’’ Klein says. “I’ve never seen that kind of old music used in such a contemporary fashion, something that meant something to me today, not that took me back to my roots or ritual or whatever. That’s not what this piece did. This is here and now.’’

“Caesarean Section’’ is the middle piece of the “Gospels of Childhood’’ triptych, which the group performed in its entirety in San Francisco this week. Charlestown is their only other stop on this, their third visit to America. Johnson says people have been calling for tickets from New York and Washington, D.C. Teatr Zar is beginning to get bookings all over the world, says Klein.

“It will be hard to repeat this,’’ Klein says. “I hope everybody storms the doors and sees what I see.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at


Created by Teatr Zar

Presented by Charlestown Working Theater in partnership with Double Edge Theatre.

At: Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St., Charlestown, May 29-June 1. Tickets: $25. 866-811-4111, www.charles