The first time he came to the United States in 1973, Wieslaw Gorski was a wide-eyed teenager in a Polish theater troupe that toured to major universities. "American audiences were very interested in us," the director recalls. "We were from a Communist country behind the Iron Curtain. We got full houses and reviews in big papers. I remember a Washington Post critic writing that our girls didn't shave their legs."
Now, thanks to a prestigious travel grant from Theatre Communications Group, Gorski is in St. Louis to direct the professional world premiere of The Polish Egg Man by Alexander Borinsky, a Yale University student. The dark comedy receives its world premiere this week and next at Upstream Theater. Gorski describes the three-character play as "poetic, touching, intimate. When I read it, I liked it right away. Now that I'm rehearsing it, I like its theatricality. I like its youth and imagery. I like the fact that there's no dot at the end. Is it funny? Is it not funny? It plays with the idea of theater itself."
This from a man whose life has been spent in the theater, and not always under the most playful circumstances. Living behind the Iron Curtain, theater in Poland was strictly controlled yet also pervasive. "Until 1956 there was Stalinism," he says. "That was the toughest time. Then came the thaw. Suddenly for a period of five to ten years, Arthur Miller, Albee, appeared on Polish stages. When I came to Warsaw in the mid-'60s, many American playwrights were staged. And it was a very good time for the Polish theater."
Primarily owing to the influence of reformer Jerzy Grotoswki, with whom Gorski briefly worked, the world viewed Poland as a theater mecca: "I was a big fan of his, and also Peter Brook, who came to work with him. These people meant freedom, and they managed to survive somehow within the system." Political freedom arrived ever so briefly in 1981 with Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement, which was followed by five years of martial law. "It was virtually impossible to get out of the country," Gorksi says. "That was the gloomiest time for me. I was a grown-up person and ready to work. And the main director, who had to be a party member, and he knew all the secrets, he said, 'You're on the blacklist.' I said, 'Me? Why?' I wasn't politically active. But my mouth spoke, and I was overheard, and they report it. We had a lot of secret police around, even within the company. They were everywhere."
In 1988, when he could finally leave Poland, Gorski passed through New York "for a couple of days" en route to visit a friend in Canada; he stayed in the Big Apple for six years. "I became absolutely fascinated with American art," he says. "Galleries. This was shocking to me. Installations. All these modern things I didn't see in Poland. We still had framed paintings. That was all."
After he returned to Poland, Gorski led a state-run repertory company for several years. He championed the works of Alfred Jarry and was the first person to stage some obscure plays by Pablo Picasso. But capitalism has had an impact upon Poland's once-vibrant theater. "I think the health of theater in Poland is bad," he says, adding that when liberty was a distant goal, "the theater was the place where freedom should be expressed." Now that the free-enterprise system has taken hold, "the theater has become pretty commercial. It's socially engaged, but not politically engaged."
And how would The Polish Egg Man be received in Poland? "Difficult to say," Gorski admits. "In an independent theater it would go very well. But I don't think the artistic directors would take it on. Because despite the fact that they are state-supported, still they want something commercial. They wouldn't consider this commercial enough. For adventurous theater I must come to St. Louis."