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Off-Broadway Review

NY Review: 'Festen (The Celebration)'

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NY Review: 'Festen (The Celebration)'
Photo Source: Pavel Antonov
The afternoon I saw “Festen” at St. Ann’s Warehouse, one of the more affecting moments took place during the curtain call, when the youngest members of the cast—Antonina Kalita and Konstanty Kosiński, both perhaps aged 5 or 6—began to jostle with one another, giggling and placing handkerchiefs on their heads when they should have been taking their bows. Witness to their unfettered, unrehearsed innocence, I shared their relief at being released from the somber world of the play, which has remained loyal to its source, the 1998 Danish film of the same title, but has not captured its spark.

The plot of “Festen” follows one man’s struggle to avenge the theft of his own and his late sister’s innocence by their abusive father. At a family reunion at its upper-crust estate, the son’s confession unseats the patriarch and, needless to say, ruins the family dinner.

The story is seductive for a theatrical transfer, centered as it is on an Albee-esque confrontation between private demons and public punishment. (Another, unrelated adaptation opened and closed on Broadway in 2006 with little commercial attention, and I didn’t see it.) But the film’s success depends on its gritty naturalism and the ability to track characters into many locations—kitchen, forest, hallway, various bedrooms—with the action alternating between the dining room and what’s happening elsewhere. Małgorzata Szcęśniak’s cavernous set offers only dislocated spaces in front and to the side of the dinner table, rendering flat and presentational what should be surprising and labyrinthine. This setup caters to director Grzegorz Jarzyna’s inclination to make a spectacle out of a decadent family’s decline. He uses underscoring and melodramatic delivery to call attention to climactic moments, such as the father’s devastating last remark to his son before the dawn brings a reluctant reconciliation. What is disconcertingly casual onscreen is overly planned onstage.

Andrzej Chyra, as the brooding son, and Magdalena Cielecka, as his quirky love interest, are a charming pair who provide the most believable moments in the show. Jaz Peszek and Ewa Dałkowska, as father and mother, comment too quickly on their characters’ weaknesses, leaving them uninteresting targets for symbolic assassination. Young Antonina and Konstanty are brought onstage to play together whenever the stakes of the conflict need highlighting. If their antsy post-show antics are any indication, they’re not too young to recognize when the fun has gone out of the game.

Presented by and at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water St., Brooklyn, N.Y. April 23–29. Tue.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 8 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, (718) 254-8779, www.theatermania.com, or www.stannswarehouse.org.

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