“right left with heels” steps on history’s toes

Who gets to tell the story?

That’s a hot question in American theatre.  The “melting pot”  is boiling over, and folks of every ethnic group, color, gender and identity are leaping up and seizing control of their narratives.  It’s a lively time.

Who tells the story is a hot question in Polish theatre, too. But there, it’s because a succession of regimes — Nazi, Soviet, and the post-Solidarity republic — have taken political power and with it, the power to tell Poland’s story.  Even in today’s democracy, when a new party wins a majority, history books get rewritten and plays get censored. It’s a dangerous time.

Enter playwright Sebastian Majewski. Trained in puppet theatre, he hit on the brilliant notion of not having human characters tell stories.  Not even puppets.  Just objects.  So right left with heels is recounted by a pair of shoes (portrayed by two gifted, tireless actors, Lindsay Plake and Alexa Yeames).  And it’s recounted twice in the 90 minutes we spend together.

Alexa Yeames, Lindsay Plake (photo: Paul Rubenstein)

Alexa Yeames, Lindsay Plake (photo: Paul Rubenstein)

The shoes, fancy and proud of it, spend their decades-long career entirely in Poland. Going from owner to owner, they experience the violent changes of war and of unstable peace.  They are simple. What does a shoe know, after all, except that it likes to dance, doesn’t want to die?  So we proceed through the first telling, charmed by their enthusiasm, laughing at their childlike boasting and the way they mock a boorish owner.

Then the story begins again.  Already, in the first telling, there were moments when the world challenged and confused them — when they were accused of being used in war crimes, or when the audience’s laughter suggested there was something the shoes didn’t know.

Now, their innocence goes from charming to chilling.  We learn that they are made for Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister — fashioned from human flesh at Auschwitz.  Like the child of a slave-plantation owner, they owe their very existence to monstrous crimes of which they are unaware.

As the second telling unfolds, the shoes’ ignorance collapses, no longer protecting them.  The sour-faced woman who bruises them with her elephantine dancing is in fact a secret police agent, stomping on prisoners’ faces.  The woman to whom she gives the shoes is one of her victims — unable to see their beauty because they have been used to blind her.

The light, fast story grows heavy with moral weight; and no simple certainty arrives to lift it.  As the shoes discover themselves, we discover the complex history they have lived.  They are innocent victims — and blood-spattered collaborators.   So, perhaps, are we.

In addition, right left with heels reveals how crucial it is who gets to tell the story.  An innocent vision misses so much — a revision can show a far more complicated tale of suffering and confusion.  Or, in the hands of a dogmatic regime, it can be as simple and useless as the shoes’ original telling.

All this is a great deal for a 90-minute play to accomplish.  But Majewski and director/choreographer Frédérique Michel have the benefit of 50 years of deeply radical theatrics in Poland, ever since Jerzy Grotowski began working toward “poor theatre”.

So right left with heels does its huge task easily, on a simple pipe-frame platform with two chairs (and some pertinent projections) — all by Charles A. Duncombe.  Josephine Poinsot’s dance dresses, elegant heels, nylons and even hairbands are precise and perfect.

This is the kind of excellence we rely on City Garage to bring us.  A very Polish play, very radical in its theatrics, staged with elegance and clarity — and made bitingly relevant to Americans who may know little Polish history but know far too much about unearned privilege won by violence, and about the ignorance that protects it.

Spend an evening with right left with heels.  It will change the way you think about Europe’s history, and our own … and about how to tell a story.
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right left with heels, by Sebastian Majewski, directed (and choreographed) by Frédérique Michel.
Presented by City Garage, at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica 90404.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00 (“Pay What You Can”),
through Aug. 14.

Tickets: (310)453-9939 or <www.citygarage.org>

Warning:  Getting to Bergamot Station by car is not easy.  Coming west from the I-10, a small sign marks a lane on the right, not much larger than a driveway, as 26th Street.  Take it — then, just before the light-rail tracks, you must turn right into a narrow gate.  Coming by Metro rail, however, is easy — the 26th Street station is right in front of the theatre.