I ought to preface this review for Polanski Polanski by stating my view on the play’s subject, filmmaker Roman Polanski. Though in many cases I’ve been able to separate an artist from his or her controversial life, Polanski is someone whom I’ve found impossible to do so. Though many in the film industry have given Polanski a “pass” for raping a 13 year-old girl (including Whoopi Goldberg, who disgustingly excused Polanski’s crime as rape but “not rape-rape,” a statement that sounds like it came the mouth of former Missouri Representative Todd “legitimate rape” Aiken), I don’t believe being a talent filmmaker absolves him from serving punishment for such a horrific crime. That’s my personal opinion.
But regardless of my personal feelings about Roman Polanski, I recognize that the man’s life easily translates into perfect material for the stage. His story is straight out of Ancient Greek tragedy. While Polanski will always be defined by his horrific, unpunished crime, he’ll also be defined by his gifts as a filmmaker, surviving the Holocaust, and the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family.
The one-man play Polanski Polanski, which was written by Saviana Stanescu and directed by Tamilla Woodard, weaves all of the tragic elements of Polanski’s life and creates a portrait that is neither sympathetic nor damning. Grant Neale stars as Polanski during three distinct periods of Polanski’s life: the day of the photo shoot at Jack Nicholson’s house that culminates in Polanski raping Samantha Geimer, when he comes to the decision to flee the U.S. rather than face prison, and finally under house arrest in 2010 while he was waiting to be extradited to the U.S. to finally face the charges.
Yet it would be wrong to say the play is only set during these three periods, especially since what is presented to the audience appears to be Polanski’s inner monologue, a fever dream of suffering, egotism, and the memories that spark from his synapses about his life and most famous films. Neale’s extremely physical performance – almost dance-like – is intense and frantic and surprisingly humorous because of its physical comedy and some of Stanescu’s dialogue. I was taken aback by some audience members who laughed at some aspects of Polanski’s more vicious comments about the rape, but I realized that the laughter was born out of discomfort – the kind when you’re not sure what reaction you’re supposed to feel. After all, with all his wide-eyed, nervous energy Neale’s Polanski alternates between taking responsibility for his actions and referring to himself as a “genius filmmaker” who is above the law. This is a character that cannot judge himself, and it’s no wonder that audiences have trouble doing so also.
Polanski Polanski takes advantage of the Chain Theatre’s media capabilities by using a large video screen during the photo shoot and house arrest sequence, and the rest of the set is minimal. Much of the “scenery” is provided by Joyce Liao’s lightning design, which at some points becomes shadow puppetry on the walls of the theater. It is unexpected, but welcome, element that adds to Neale’s performance and Stanescu’s words.
Polanski Polanski has been presented by Neale and Nomad Theatrical Company in several productions since 2010 in both New York and Romania, and Neale has obviously grown so much into Polanski’s role that the character is an extension of his body and personality (it also should be noted that he looks remarkably like a young Polanski, though taller). I would not be surprised to see Neale continue to stage this play intermittently throughout his career because his performance as this character is remarkable.
The play is about an hour long, and though it’s an hour of intensity, it’s still an hour (though considering the energy Neale expels during that hour, I could not imagine him being physically able to go much longer). That’s certainly something you would have to consider when you look at the ticket price, but as hours of theater go there are few better.
Polanski Polanski runs September 12th – 16th and September 19th-21st The Chain Theatre in the Long Island City section of Queens, New York City. For information, visit Variations Theatre Group.