The Madman and the Nun

You know things are going to be a little weird when you enter a theater and receive—in lieu of a program—a confidential psychiatric patient file clipped into an official-looking manila folder.  Things got even stranger on opening night when cast members, wandering about outside the stage area, encouraged audience members to sample some of the asylum’s “drugs” (it’s actually wine.)

Believe it or not, that’s what’s happening at DC’s Flashpoint theater space where the Ambassador Theater Company is mounting Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’ fast-paced absurdist play The Madman and the Nun.

John Stange as Walpurg (Madman) and Jenny Donovan as Sister Anna (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Theater)

Fortunately, if you carefully pore over your medical record, you actually get to learn about the cast, the crew, and the very unusual 1923 play you’re about to see. Its author—often known simply as “Witkacy” (vit-KAH-chee)—was a wildly creative Polish poet, dramatist, and portrait painter whose life (1885-1939) encompassed both the Soviet revolution, which he witnessed first hand, and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Arguably, Witkacy was a founding father of absurdist theater, penning this kind of drama well before playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco made it famous. Highly eccentric yet oddly well grounded, Witkacy was also something of an early Timothy Leary, dabbling with widening circles of exotic drugs, the better to place his creative mind in different planes, planets, and universes the better to understand the wonders and fears of the human experience.

Hanna Bondarewska, Madman’s director, cleverly sets out to immerse her audience in the entire Witkacy experience. The clever “medical records” and the “drugs” she offers get the audience in the mood of the asylum they’ve already entered. And selected reproductions of Witkacy’s almost Van Gogh-like portraits festooning the rear of the lobby are labeled with his meticulous transcriptions of the effects of the specific drugs he ingested while painting them.

For this reason, upon taking a seat in the theater’s tiny black box space, if you’ve managed to read, view, and absorb much of this material, you have a pretty good idea of the unreal world you’re about to enter.

The Madman and the Nun (1923) concerns the final—more or less—troubled days of Alexander Walpurg, a troubled poet who has gone insane. After having committed himself to an asylum, he discovers (in his own mind, anyway) that the doctors and the staff won’t ever allow him to leave. The situation actually resembles in many ways Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the villainous “combine” of that asylum conspires to trap its hapless inmates forever.

In any event, imagining he’s killed his fiancée, whether true or not, Walpurg becomes increasingly violent and we discover him wrapped in a straight jacket when the play begins.

Right off, the poet’s name offers a clue to Witkacy’s sense of the absurd. “Walpurg” is a derivative of “Walburga” or “Walpurga,” an English nun and eventual saint who served as a missionary and abbess in Northern Germany. After her death, she was canonized on or around May Day, purportedly in 870 A.D. (Intriguingly, the Catholic Church has named her the patron saint for sufferers of rabies.)

This gave rise to various commemorative celebrations in Northern Europe, which persist to this day. While some celebrate May Day or the beginning of spring, the German flavor, at least, somehow morphed into the day when witches and sorcerers gather together en masse in a ritual known as “Walpurgisnacht.”

So right from the outset, Witkacy makes it clear to the knowing members of his audience that his poet/antihero is in some ways a sorcerer and a missionary saint embracing the virtues of possessing a drug-altered artistic mind capable of conjuring up multiple human realities.

Mary Suib as Sister Barbara and David Berkenbilt as Dr. Grun (Photo courtesy of Ambassador Theater)

If this all seems esoteric, it’s really not. The play is not nearly as hard to follow as some of the later works of Ionesco. In the end, it’s really a tragic, dual track love story that takes place in the surreal recesses of a poet’s mind.

Diagnosed with dementia praecox and drugged into a stupor by his attending physicians Dr. Bidello (Ivan Zizek) and the Freudian analyst Dr. Grun (David Berkenbilt, Walpurg (John Stange) is befriended his attendant, the young Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan) who, it turns out, is a fan of his poetry and is shocked to discover how his life has turned out.

Under bizarre circumstances, Walpurg and Anna soon become co-conspirators in an attempt to break the poet free of the asylum that has confined his mind and his spirit. The plot is not linear, of course, and things are not always what they seem in this asylum where the concepts of freedom and escape may be real or possibly the consequences of an altered state.

The principal actors do a bangup job of adding wit, personal trauma, and wild eccentricity to the action, particularly John Stange as the wildly mood-swinging Walpurg and David Berkenbilt as a crackpot analyst-shrink—clearly a dig at the sex-obsessed world of Sigmund Freud. The supporting cast, including Ray Converse, Jen Bevan, and James Randle, add sinister helping hands as well.

Although Madman is something of a bare bones production, it’s loaded with crazy, imaginative touches, including the weirdly effective costuming designed by Jen Bevan. Sister Anna’s sexy pink habit is a nice touch as is the overly ornate habit of Anna’s superior, the very weird and ultra-cranky Mother Superior, Sister Barbara (Mary Suib). Barbara’s pancake makeup and huge, fluttering fake eyelids make this character even funnier.

But perhaps the biggest hat tip of all goes to director Hanna Bondarewska. Working with scholars to establish a faithful, working English translation of this Polish play, and helping her players get into their characters and navigate Witkacy’s intriguing, multi-layered, glorious mess of a play, she brings a long-neglected playwright vividly back to life, exploring once again his oddly forward looking views on life, reality, art, and—for better or worse—the role of mind-altering substances in transporting an artist to other realms where creativity may somehow be more highly regarded as a glimpse of the divine.

For Witkacy, it seems, life might ultimately be summed up in the words of an American uppercase-challenged poet e. e. cummings, who later wrote:

listen; there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go

Ambassador Theater’s production of The Madman and the Nun  runs thru Dec 18, 2011 at Flashpoint Gallery, Mead Theatre Lab, 918 G Street NW, Washington, DC.

The Madman and the Nun

by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz
Directed by Hanna Bondarewska
Produced by Ambassador Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick

Highly recommended

Running time: 65 minutes without intermission


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