Polish Playwright And Iconic Local Landmark Meet In “Sweet Revenge” At Upstream Theater

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The cast during a dress rehearsal of “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater with Director Philip Boehm. Photo: Patrick Huber

Aleksander Fredo may have been the Moliere or Sheridan of 19th Century Poland as he was one of the best known comedic playwrights of the early 1800’s. With a few lapses for political and social reasons, he wrote and produced some of the best Polish theatre of the time. In this translation of one of his best, “Zemsta” or “Sweet Revenge,” Artistic Director of Upstream Theater, Philip Boehm has also directed a talented cast and added a bit of local color as well. In a wonderful piece in the program, my one time colleague at Maryville University, Tom Bratkowsi, explains that the Julius Slowacki Theatrical Society established itself in 1909 at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Polish National Catholic Church in St. Louis to continue Polish artistic endeavors for those who had escaped oppression to America.

As a paean to those St. Louis players (the society was disbanded in 1959) Boehm has presented Fredo’s play as if done by this group of amateur actors. It’s a real treat as we’re transported back to 1933 St. Louis and, in turn, to 1834 Poland. To begin, the curtain (a replica of that original curtain at the church) starts to rise slowly as music begins. A few in the audience start to rise and then the whole crowd is on their feet realizing that the Polish National Anthem is being played. The curious cast begins to peek beneath the curtain as it rises to see how the “house” is and then the play begins.

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The iconic curtain for “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater. Photo: Patrick Huber

A play in verse, “Sweet Revenge” is a lot like a drawing room comedy featuring feuding neighbors who find the walls that divide them can symbolically tear down those inner walls to come to some understanding. The first act features one neighbor, Czesnik, who can’t decide if he should pursue the young Klara or chase the elderly but well to do Hanna. Whit Reichert is perfect as the often bumbling Czesnik who finds fault with just about everyone in both his household and those of his neighbors. Witty dialogue and sharp physical comedy are right up Reichert’s alley and he plays this pompous and often bombastic character with style and humor.

Like the Fred Astaire to Mr. Reichert’s Gene Kelly, John Contini brings another side of the humor to Czesnik’s neighbor, Milczek. Ramrod straight with a devious mind, he punctuates every line with a sarcastic twist. As a braggadocio soldier, Papkin, who enhances his accomplishments, John Bratkowski (yes, Tom’s brother), swashes and buckles his way through each outrageous story that we soon find out are nothing but- dare I say it?- “fake” news. It is a brilliant performance that never wavers.

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Whit Reichert dictates as John Bratkowski and Eric J. Conners frantically take it all down in the Upstream Theater production of “Sweet Revenge.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Jane Paradise is the widow Hanna who courts both neighbors in an effort to secure another rich husband. Her feminine wiles ooze through to both men as she floats from one to the other. As the other apple of Czesnik’s hopeful love life, Klara, Caitlin Mickey is a charmer who only has eyes for Milczek’s son, Waclaw, played with wily charm and youthful candor by Pete Winfrey. Strong on physical comedy as well, his body and facial expressions speak volumes for what’s in his character’s mind. Combined with Ms. Mickey, they are a truly inspired comedic stage couple.

Rounding out the cast is yeoman work from Eric J. Conners in multiple roles as majordomo to Czesnik, a cook in his service and as a mason building the infamous wall. He manages to rise to the occasion with a change of costume, posture and voice inflection to give vibrant life to each. Director Philip Boehm has brought a deliciously clever, broad, comedic and slightly slapstick presentation of this Polish masterpiece to the stage. It works so well and reminds you every now and then that these are “amateur” actors performing out of love for the work. And he is to be commended on translating a Polish play in verse into a play in verse in English- not an easy accomplishment.

Patrick Huber’s set design is perfect with a backdrop that transitions from each household with ease and minimal set pieces that the actors, of course, move for themselves. Laura Hanson’s costumes are spot on from the ragged royalty of the neighbors to the buffoonery of Papkin. Steve Carmichael’s lights enhance the whole proceedings while staying in the vein of the performance.

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The brilliant cast of “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater. Photo: Patrick Huber

Clever and unexpected, “Sweet Revenge” is a real treat. It plays at Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Theatre and you can go to upsteamtheater@sbcglobal.net for tickets or more information.

 

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