Upstream Theater Returns to 1933 to Present a Charming Polish Comedy 

click to enlarge Maciej (Whit Reichert) and Milczek (John Contini) duel over old grievances.


Maciej (Whit Reichert) and Milczek (John Contini) duel over old grievances.

Let us return to those early days of twentieth century when St. Louis' immigrant citizens put on plays in their mother tongue in various parish halls. Among these companies was the Julius Słowacki Theatrical Society at the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Polish National Catholic Church, a troupe of amateur actors who loved classic Polish romantic comedies. Founded in 1909, the society turned off the lights in 1959, as its audience became assimilated and no longer needed to be reminded of the pleasures of a far-off home.

But for a limited time, the Julius Słowacki Theatrical Society returns to October 1933 to mount one more production of the great Aleksander Fredro's classic farce, Sweet Revenge, thanks to the good graces of Upstream Theater. Through a neat bit of magic, you'll understand Polish like a native so Fredro's story about warring neighbors makes perfect sense — the better to appreciate Fredro's rhymed verse. OK, so that magic is actually director Philip Boehm's marvelous translation, but even in English it trips along lightly.

Cześnik Maciej Ratusiewicz (Whit Reichert) is an aging nobleman who shares a castle with the notary Milczek (John Contini). The two are locked in a bitter feud that has made even a castle too small for both to occupy, and so each attempts to gain the upper hand. Maciej is choleric and ready to fight, while Milczek is more measured and prefers to use artfully crafted (some would say "exaggerated") legal documents to do his dirty work. For now, Maciej is content to wed again and gain the lands of the wealthy widow Hanna (Jane Paradise). He's no gentle pitcher of woo; for that he summons Papkin (John Bratkowski), an adventurer whose short stature belies his inflated opinion of himself, to plead his case to Hanna.

click to enlarge Waclaw (Pete Winfrey) comforts Klara (Caitlin Mickey). - PROPHOTOSTL.COM
  • Waclaw (Pete Winfrey) comforts Klara (Caitlin Mickey).
Papkin is the star of the show. Bratkowski got his start on stage as a child at the Julius Słowacki Theatrical Circle, and it's obvious the role of Papkin is a dream come true for him. His Papkin boasts like a lion, cringes like a mouse, antagonizes everyone he meets and rarely stops extolling his own greatness. There are no wasted moments while Papkin is onstage; whether stealing liquor in the background or writing a vainglorious will with all the seriousness of a child composing a last-minute essay, Bratkowski constantly hones his buffoonery.

Pete Winfrey and Caitlin Mickey are just as enchanting as our thwarted lovers, Wacław (son of Milczek) and Klara (ward of Maciej). Wacław knows his father will not approve their union, so he suggests running away; Klara is horrified by the thought. (She's also positively traumatized by Papkin's proposal, but quickly counters with a list of impossible demands.) When Wacław attempts to reason with Milczek, he makes a childish pledge to die if he can't marry Klara and then falls to his knees with a bizarre shriek of goose-like longing. Milczek is right to ignore the demands of such a foolish boy.

There are numerous obstacles for all parties to overcome before a happy ending can be found in this strange castle of enemies and lovers. Milczek attempts to steal Hanna from Maciej so she can become Wacław's wife, a plot that comes to a comic end, thanks to Jane Paradise's lusty portrayal of Hanna. Maciej then tries to dictate a falsified love letter, but his right-hand man Dyndalski (Eric J. Conners) is too assiduous in his transcript. It finally comes to Maciej and Milczek facing each other over drawn sabers before young love conquers old hates.

But that isn’t the end, and for that the audience has actor Eric J. Connors to thank. Not only does Connors play the aggressor and victim in a single fight, he also gives the show its story-behind-the-story, which serves as both a charming prologue and an insightful postlude.

The Eric J. Conners of 1933, it turns out, is a devoted fan of the Julius Słowacki Theatrical Society. He wanders backstage to join the cast in the pre-show singing of a Polish song and then wins the role of utility man in the company, which is down an actor.

After the successful performance, Conners asks if they can go somewhere to celebrate pulling it off — as long as it's a place a black man like he can enter in 1939 St. Louis. The cast briefly discusses the strangely divided nature of their adopted city, and how some much-needed love and understanding would do it a world of good. It's a poignant reminder that old men locked in the battles of the past can't win against young love and its hopeful future.

Editor's note: The online version of this story initially gave the wrong year for the play's setting. It is 1933, not 1939. We regret the error.


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