One of the more intriguing things about being an American is that we tend to define ourselves more by where our ancestors emigrated from than by where we currently are residing. For example, if someone were to come up to you and inquire about your nationality, what would your response be? Would you answer "American" or would you instead list one or more of the myriad plots of land your ancestors called home? Polish Joke, the world premier of David Ives' newest play currently running at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, explores the quandary of which is more important, who we are or where our ancestors came from, and somehow manages to turn ethnic discrimination, stereotypes, and humor into a brilliantly hysterical comedy.
Polish Joke tells the saga of young Jasiu (Ted deChatelet), a Polish-American child from "The Bush" (a Polish ghetto in some undetermined city) who has been warned by his Uncle Roman (Richard Ziman) that not only are all Polish jokes true, but in order to escape his destiny (most likely a janitorial position in the local steel mill), he must find another nationality to adopt and acquire a more easily pronounceable name. Only then will he escape the dreaded sound of 'The Polish Gong,' which heralds doom to all members of his race. Against all odds and expectations, David Ives, best known for his collection of one-act comedies, All In The Timing, has written a script that manages to handle such a potentially disastrous (not to mention totally un-PC) subject with gentle humor and genuine warmth, all the while never bashing one over the head with a 'message.' I kept waiting to be offended by the humor, or even worse, to feel guilty about not being offended, but somehow Ives perfectly navigated the treacherous shoals and created a show that examines the human condition in a hysterical and thought-provoking fashion.
Ted deChatelet and John Aylward
Photo: Chris Bennion
Not only is Polish Joke blessed with a winning script, but it furthers its charms with a perfect cast and creative team. Five actors portray the twenty-three characters of the show and it is hard to pick out a favorite. John Aylward (last seen at ACT playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and perhaps best known as Dr. Anspaugh on E.R.) was wonderful as a hysterically stereotypical Irish travel agent named (of course) O'Flanagan, and as a refreshingly non-stereotypical, human and caring priest. Nancy Bell was sensational as Portia, the uber-WASP who tries to ferret out Jasiu's (AKA John Sadler) true nationality, as his Jewish fiancée Rachel, and as Miss MacFlanagan, a fresh-faced Irish widow-to-be. Leslie Law shone in all of her over-the-top characters, but also brought the evening to its soul with a thought-provoking monologue that examined the true definition of nationality. Richard Ziman was delightful as the instigator of the whole comedy, the larger than life Uncle Roman, and Ted deChatelet kept Jasiu centered, human and likeable throughout the show.
Director Jason McConnell Buzas, who also conceived and directed Ives' All in the Timing, displayed a deft and light touch, keeping the action moving and never letting the show drift too far into absurdity. Loy Arcenas' set design was a spectacular collection of doors and walls that appeared from all sides, at times providing Jasiu yet another obstacle to overcome. Rose Pederson's costumes and Mary Louise Geiger's lighting designs ranged from moments of simplicity to outright outrageousness, as the needs and moods of the show required.
Overall, Polish Joke is one of the best new plays I have seen in quite some time. It is one of those all too rare beasts, a message play that displays both subtly and humor, and as a result is universal in its appeal and impact. Polish Joke runs through August 5th at ACT and should not be missed. For more information visit www.acttheatre.org.