Shehal Joseph / CC BY 2.0

City Garage, an avant-garde theater group in Santa Monica, Calif., specializing in political theater, was feeling pretty complacent.

This spring, its latest production, “Othello/Desdemona,” written by Charles Duncombe and directed by his wife, Frederique Michel, co-founders of the 29-year-old company, was garnering rave reviews. But more important, they had made a fan of Ignacy Zarski, the science, education and Polish community consul at Poland’s consulate in Los Angeles. Zarski has seen three of the company’s productions since his arrival last summer and was eager to help with the next play, “Right Left With Heels,” written by Polish playwright Sebastian Majewski, which is playing now through Aug. 14.

According to Duncombe, in a March 10 meeting, Zarski, on behalf of the Polish Consulate, offered to sponsor an opening-night gala for “Right Left With Heels,” as well as provide outreach to the Polish community and an additional $1,000 to go with funds already raised through a Kickstarter campaign. It was a handshake agreement to be subsequently fleshed out. The next day, Duncombe sent the text of the play to Zarski in an email reading:

“In support of the project, here is what we hope the Consulate may be able to help with:

Finance and opening night reception for approximately 55 people; Outreach and promotion to the local Polish audience through emails, newsletters, and any other means you have at your disposal;


I understand that the reception and promotion maybe be (sic) the limit of what the Consulate can assist with, but I would be remiss in not asking whether an additional $1500 might be possible to subsidize the printing and mailing of flyers?”

But discussions ground to a halt once Zarski read the play, tracking the history of postwar Poland from the perspective of a pair of shoes given to Magda Goebbels by her husband, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, toward the end of World War II in Europe. Cobbled from the flesh of Auschwitz victims, the shoes are represented by actors Alexa Yeames and Lindsay Plake, costumed in matching red dresses and moving and speaking in sync as right shoe and left shoe. In the aftermath of the war, the shoes are passed from owner to owner, finally landing on the feet of a transvestite in modern Warsaw who is beaten by young Polish “patriots.”

“ ‘We don’t approve of the content of the play. We’re going to get in trouble with the new government,’ ” Duncombe remembers Zarski telling him about the play, which had received rave reviews in Warsaw only three years earlier. “ ‘We don’t like the way postwar Poland is portrayed.’ ”

Zarski denies saying this or that there was ever an agreement to begin with, claiming Duncombe and Michel confused his enthusiasm with a pledge to commit. In an email dated June 2, nearly three months after sending the text and six weeks after their last meeting on April 15, Duncombe wrote:

“We haven’t spoke (sic) since the opening of “Othello/Desdemona.” We are going to go ahead with the ‘Right Left With Heels’ project. We feel it’s an important and worthwhile play. The last time we spoke you said that the Consulate would have to withdraw its promise of support. Is that still the case? Finally, even if you cannot support it financially, is the Consulate willing to send out information about the project in its newsletters or through email or mailing list?”

While Duncombe’s emails imply an understanding between the two, they hardly prove a commitment by Zarski. “He was very frank with us, maybe too frank,” Duncombe says of Zarski. “They have the right as a government not to give money to something they don’t approve of. I’m just disappointed he couldn’t be honest about it. He’s a diplomat and he’s trying to cover his butt.”

When Zarski assumed his current position, Poland was enjoying its highest level of gross domestic product in over 500 years under Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz. But a foul wind was blowing across Europe and the United States in the form of nativist leaders like Donald Trump; Nigel Farage, who relied on xenophobia to get the people of the U.K. to vote to exit the European Union; and Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, which won in a landslide in October’s election. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo was quickly sidelined by the party’s firebrand extremist, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who went straight to work dismantling many of the country’s democratic institutions, such as the state media, constitutional court and judicial system, drawing condemnation from the EU that could lead to sanctions.

“This means changing the cultural policy from a critical to an affirmative one,” says playwright Majewski about the new government’s impact on the arts. “There will be supported only those projects that reinforce the traditional Christian values and those that build the Polish romantic model of thinking and describing Poles’ reality.”

Zarski maintains there have been no repercussions emanating yet from the new government. The consulate’s funding is steady and he says City Garage’s commitment to Polish theater is greatly appreciated, which is why the consulate posted information on “Right Left With Heels” on its Facebook page.

Duncombe and Michel are appreciative but concerned that something greater is at stake. “Poland has a long tradition of subversive art. And theater is a really dangerous political tool throughout the postwar period. It could be a dangerous thing to do,” he warns. “It’s concerning that a lot of people are feeling like it’s becoming that again after a period of relative openness and democracy and freedom of expression.”

Majewski, who arrived last week from Poland for his play’s North American premiere, concurs. “Any violation of freedom of artistic expression and forced influence on artists only enhances the creative sector’s solidarity and a sense of stronger determination to act freely.

“The arts should always keep an eye on the authorities and be able to control them by constructive criticism.”

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