Our People: Ideas of Young Creators at Panevėžys Theatre

By Aušra Kaminskaitė 2019 12 19 menufaktura.lt
Theatre reviewers paid a lot of attention to the Clown played by young actor Valerijus Kazlauskas. Photo by Arvydas Gudas
Theatre reviewers paid a lot of attention to the Clown played by young actor Valerijus Kazlauskas. Photo by Arvydas Gudas

Lithuanian theatre continues exploring the consequences of Holocaust. Director Artūras Areima has staged the performance Our People (Lith. Mūsiškiai) at the Panevėžys Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre. It is a once prominent provincial theatre. During the times of its founder Juozas Miltinis, spectators from all over Lithuania and the Soviet Union used to come to performances. Juozas Miltinis (1907-1994) is a legendary figure of Lithuanian theatre and an intellectual artist who studied theatre in Paris in 1932-1936. Following his death, the artistic level of the theatre has decreased and the interest of the audience has declined.

In 2017, young people Leonas Blėdis and Andrius Jevsejevas - who had virtually grown up in the theatre and observed its changing repertoire since their childhood - took up the posts of the theatre director and artistic director. They started inviting young directors to stage performances, transformed little-used or absolutely unused spaces into halls, organized concerts, slam evenings, dramaturgy workshops and readings.

In such conditions, Artūras Areima's Our People has served as a decisive turning point in the history of the theatre - it has placed the Panevėžys Drama Theatre back to the centre of attention. The performance is based on the documentary book bearing the same title by Lithuanian writer, producer Rūta Vanagaitė, published in 2016. The book received controversial reviews as it reminded Lithuanians of the fact that during the Second World War representatives of our country killed 96% of the Lithuanian Jews with their own hands. The news of such choice of the theatre caused premature tension; it was forecasted publicly that the performance on such a theme would polarize the society. The theatre representatives informed that with Our People the artists intended not to stage what had been described by Vanagaitė but rather to analyse more deeply the furore it had triggered. The play was written by Polish dramatist Michał Walczak, whose several plays had already been staged by Areima.

Walczak's play Our People tells about the oasis of nature and history, established in the former massacre location of Jews. The owner of the place is the Clown. He runs the theme park, where people, having arrived to camp, celebrate and take pictures, have to face the ghosts from the past and physical violence as if to remind them of the foundations, on which everything stands. From time to time, the prototypes of two real personalities taken from Vanagaitė's book show up in the scenes, i.e. the author of the book referred to as Persona Non Grata in the play and the Nazi hunter, her guide around the massacre locations of Jews. And so, by mixing reality and fiction Areima has created the horror thriller, the action engine of which constitutes of endless violence that no one feels the need to stop.

“Fortunately, this was neither a nominal report on the relations among nations nor a protocol apology. And yet, this wasn't a mind-boggling stage act either,” theatre critic Vaidas Jauniškis wrote after the premiere. One of the performance themes most frequently observed by critics is violence as a consequence and revenge. According to Jauniškis, “Areima did not care about co-existence as a message to the audience - he was interested in analysing and stating: under the impact of ideology children turn into zombies, mankurts, red guards and start taking revenge on their history teachers.” Performing arts critic Aušra Kaminskaitė tried to look for the reasons for justification of such violence, “They were possessed by someone else and that someone else had to take responsibility; they didn't know the guns were loaded and that everything was happening for real. Those who spoke like that were presented as dim, blind, disabled; therefore, mentally irresponsible.”

Cultural commentator Mindaugas Klusas talked to several spectators who observed that, “The director pursued his goals in the artistic form he was best familiar with: by brutality, aggression, perversion, farce.” In the opinion of theatre critic Rūta Oginskaitė, Areima presents his message by, “both threatening cold-bloodedly and entertaining intellectually.” Theatre reviewer, journalist Valdas Vasiliausias criticised heavily the director's expression, “Everything is overly exaggerated, overstated, highlighted; emotions are expressed with the help of the most primitive means.” Theatrologist Ingrida Ragelskienė also values sceptically the directing style of Our People; however, she notes paradoxically strong work of actors, “What is unusual is that in this matrix of total indifference, the actors flourish in the most wonderful way; they manage to adapt to the that stage aquarium biomass by demonstrating completely new talent manifestations.”

Theatre reviewers paid a lot of attention to the Clown played by young actor Valerijus Kazlauskas.

Klusas claims that the Clown by Kazlauskas is, “An evil genius /.../, demonstrating stunningly the features of the Joker and showman Freddie Mercury.” Jauniškis refers to the work of the young creator as the hour of his acting triumph noting his ability, “To manage attention, tell cruel fairy tales with his mere physical presence, pant with fatigue and choke with anger; to scream out his character's biography and judge the dead and the living.” According to Oginskaitė, Kazlauskas is, “Plastic, fearless; his acting manner is unrestrained and contemporary, whereas his character and idea - surprisingly vivid.” Ragelskienė admits that, “Actor Valerijus Kazlauskas stands out for his unique ability to render the burden of the Clown's mask in a highly concentrated, suggestive and credible way.”

Thus, contrary to all fears, Areima's Our People has not polarised the society. After a long break, Panevėžys has finally offered the performance that has opened up a vast space for analysis and interpretation and has also attracted the attention of the most diverse audience. However, a highly intensive period before the premiere had dramatic consequences for the theatre managers - director Leonas Blėdis resigned on the eve of the opening night, whereas after the premiere, artistic director Andrius Jevsejevas handed in his notice. The Ministry of Culture appointed the elderly actor who had run another provincial theatre for a couple of decades as a provisional director of the theatre and announced the competition to fill the post of the head of the Panevėžys Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre. The theatre is once again at the crossroads.