By: JK Clarke
It is almost impossible to review a play whose subject matter is thoroughly repugnant and unforgivable. While the Nomad Theatrical Group makes it clear that they are attempting to explore the “psycho-emotional workings of a complex mind” in Polanski Polanski (now playing at the Chain Theater), there really is no reason, intellectual or otherwise, for giving voice to a character attempting to justify a completely deplorable act; particularly if their production doesn’t pass any moral judgment.
The play explores, from the viewpoint of the protagonist, the before and after of the act for which filmmaker Roman Polanski is most notorious — the “statutory” (though there is nothing merely statutory about it) rape of a 13-year-old girl.
With the help of high powered and persuasive attorneys, Polanski ultimately pled guilty to one count of unlawful sex with a minor, but ended up fleeing the country permanently because there was some indication the judge was going to reject his plea deal at the sentencing hearing. As a result, and because Polanski has created so many classic films, his exile has been controversial. An unusually large number of fans and fellow celebrities believe Polanski has paid the price for the crime through exile and that the matter should be dropped. But here’s the thing: Polanski evaded justice and fled his punishment. That’s not up for debate. What also is not up for debate, unless you’re a French citizen, is whether or not the French government should deport him. That’s their problem. The bigger problem is the reaction to his crime.
Polanski’s victim, now an adult with children, stated then and now that she did not consent to his acts. But, even if she had, she was not capable of providing consent. It is well established in human behavioral sciences that adolescents do not physically have the capacity to make such a decision, and California law has always agreed. The girl’s age was not in a borderline or grey area. She was 13! According to her testimony — which has not wavered in the intervening 30 years—Polanski gave her alcohol and dosed her with half a Quaalude, then, without her consent, performed oral, vaginal and anal sex acts on her. For this production to give Polanski a platform on which to defend himself, in a manner of speaking, is unacceptable.
Difficult topics such as pedophilia have been addressed in the artistic community before. Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece, Lolita, deals with, essentially, child rape as well; but Nabokov does not tell this story from a first person standpoint: it’s fiction, Humbert Humbert is not Nabokov and the novel is narrated as a glimpse inside the mind of a very, very mentally ill, manipulative person. In the case of Polanski Polanski we see him extolling the sexuality of this young girl. There are passages in both English and French that explicitly discuss his savoring of her innocence, as if it’s permissible to sexualize so young a person. And in the second act, he tries to justify his behavior by saying that she has turned out to have a very normal, well-adjusted life and has stated as much on the public record. Which is like saying it’s okay to murder someone because they were feeling suicidal. But, she is continually called into the spotlight because he has refused to accept his punishment, forcing her to re-live the experience over and over.
Despite all this, Grant Neale is terrific as Roman Polanski. He looks and sounds like Polanski. It’s difficult to say whether Polanski had the same manic energy, but if so, he’s got that down, too. And Saviana Stanescu’s script is well crafted, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been written at all; her talent as a writer could have been better served with more palatable subject matter. Her dialog is both informative without being overtly expository and often times poetic: “Flash Forward, Flash Back” is a panicky mantra that seems to capture the overall despair of a ruinous life choice. Furthermore, Joyce Liao’s lighting is very effective. Haunting at times, it captures the blazes of light that being in the spotlight, mentally and physically, must represent. Looming wall shadows capture both the huge and little person inside the man.
All this talent is wasted, however, on a production that should never have been mounted and should not be seen. It’s one thing to be controversial, and entirely another to endorse monstrous behavior. It is a flat-out insult to victims of rape and sexual assault everywhere, and this production is lucky it’s not being picketed. It would behoove Nomad Theatrical to have a moment of intense self-reflection and perhaps some counseling before their next production.
Polanski Polanski. Directed by Tamilla Woodard. Through September 22 at The Chain Theater (21-28 45 Road, Long Island City, Queens). www.Chain-Theatre.org