Write about what you know, they say. And that’s just what Blanka Zizka, the bold and inventive artistic director of Wilma Theater, has done.
Her new and thought-provoking play “Adapt!” traces the flight of a young Czechoslovakian woman from her rigidly authoritarian homeland to New York. That sounds a lot like Blanka Zizka’s story, but the surrealistic “Adapt!” is more “Blanka in Wonderland” than it is a straight-on personal history.
Even so, Zizka and “Adapt!” are inextricable — the play would not exist without her rich layers of perception about tearing out her own roots yet keeping them alive in a world that seemed not to care about them. She cares, and so do refugees and immigrants all over the world — that’s the overarching point of “Adapt!” and the reason that the Wilma’s lobby is bedecked with passionate testaments from Philadelphia-area immigrants.
Passion, I’m willing to bet, is what drove Zizka to write this particular play — that, and a hands-on workshop conducted by celebrated playwright Paula Vogel in Philadelphia six years ago. Everyone involved had to write a little one-act. Zizka’s was, like her, a boundary pusher, and it inspired her to write more. “Adapt!” — an arresting world-premiere production that Zizka directs — is her first play.
She’s assembled a talented cast of 11 actors, many from the Wilma HotHouse project she created to push performers beyond their usual boundaries. She also brought on a number of talented designers who give the play its unworldly feel and hired Ukranian musician Mariana Sadovska to compose laments. The widely admired storyteller/songwriter and musician Stew arranged the anti-Communist protest songs of the late singer Karel Kryl, which actor Jered McLenigan performs from a platform high above the stage.
“Adapt!” has a strong theatricality that fits its dreamy sensibility, but I confess that through much of the first half I thought I was witnessing a game whose rules are known by only Zizka. A young woman named Lenka (the wonderfully nuanced Czech actress Aneta Kernová) walks cautiously along a wall topped with barbed wire. She hears an orgasmic voice whose crescendos bring cascades of clothing onto the stage floor. Is the voice the committed conscience of the West? Are the clothes their contributions to a refugee camp? And who is the old woman (Aneza Papadopoulou, in a haunting performance) who suddenly appears and accompanies Lenka throughout? She says she’s from an extinct community and appears to represent the past.
The past and the future seem to be at war — as a refugee, how do you reconcile the fabric of the past that you wear with the naked future you’re entering? Lenka is thrown into scenes, maybe dreams, that plumb this question and shed light on its built-in contradictions. In one memory, she announces to her parents that she’s about to flee the stifling repression that has overtaken Czechoslovakia and will not allow her to freely create art. Stay and adapt!, her father angrily cautions, calling her selfish. After she flees, we witness her hunger and confusion and then, in America, the bombardment of mixed messages about liberty that greet her. Her father’s plea to adapt to Czechoslovakia’s new order has been turned upside down; adapting is all Lenka can do now to survive.
The play takes place in the summer of 1977, nine years after Soviet tanks swarmed into Czechoslovakia to kill a liberalized government and 12 years before Communism collapsed there in what’s called the Velvet Revolution. Later, the nation became the Czech Republic, its current name. Estimates of the number of Czechs who fled, like Lenka (and Zizka), are as high as 300,000.
I write this cursory history because if you see “Adapt!” it’s context that tethers the play’s unworldliness to facts. The trajectory of what will be Lenka’s life is, in the play, a question mark. Lenka begins to make her way through the world and finds that there is no map. In the play’s second half, it becomes clear that its surreal qualities feel alien for good reason: “Adapt!” is forcing you to feel as if you’re leaving your culture, dropping into nothingness and grasping a new identity built strangely, even randomly, on the old one. In that, it is masterfully constructed and perfectly named.
—“Adapt!” runs through April 22 at Wilma Theatre, on Broad Street between Locust and Spruce Streets. 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.