Crocodile Tears

Bruno Schulz’s stories are poetic, surreal, and chary of action and dialogue. As such, they are about as unsuited for stage adaptation as texts can get. But do not underestimate the perversity of the human animal – or, at least, that of Simon McBurney and his Theâtre de Complicité, who are as French as fish and chips.

Schulz (1892-1942), the Polish schoolteacher, graphic artist, and writer, was killed by the Gestapo in the ghetto of Drohobycz, the small Galician town that, along with the universe, was his home. Accidentally in the ghetto on Black Thursday, Schulz, the protected Jew of a Gestapo officer, was shot by a rival Gestapo agent whose Jewish protégé his officer had killed – an awesomely Kafkaesque death for Kafka’s Polish translator and counterpart. There were to be only two collections of Schulz stories, revolving around his burg, his family, and chiefly his father, who owned a tailor shop. But they were viewed through Bruno’s poetically skewed, surrealistically transmogrifying vision – a surrender, as John Updike put it, “to the multiple distortions of obsessed reflection.”

How do you theatricalize the changing seasons as “an enormous purple-skinned onion disclosing ever new panoramas under each of its skins”? Or skies featuring “the spirals and whorls of light, the pale-green solids of darkness, the plasma of space, the tissue of dreams,” the art of a self-proclaimed “parasite of metaphors … carried away by the first simile that comes along”? The stage circus that McBurney and Mark Wheatley have contrived is either awkwardly literal transposition of Schulz’s words or bumptiously grotesque hysterics that remotely ape and crudely simplify Schulz’s exquisitely unreal concerts.

The Street of Crocodiles adopts the American title of Schulz’s first collection, published as Cinnamon Shops, though it also includes much of the second and last, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, although the Polish has klepsydra (English clepsydra) from the Greek for “water clock.” As water is even more elusive than sand, it is yet more apt a metaphor for Schulz’s writing and its uncapturability by the adapters’ butterfly net.

Sure enough, there are busy vaudeville carryings-on: climbings up ladders, walkings down vertical walls, alignings and realignings of school desks with much banging of their tops. Also ludicrous maneuvers with wood, saws, and hammers in a so-called woodwork class. Also all sorts of bolts of cloth unrolled this way and that or unfurling from the flies, sometimes covering the entire cast, though not for long enough. There is the repeated clatter of Nazi boots marching to and fro, dressings and undressings, a fright wig periodically removed and crookedly replaced, bits of dialogue in three or four languages, and a mock execution in which Joseph, the protagonist, is passed like a baton from arms to arms in a group-grope Pietà, to delight the masses and the Times’s chief drama critic.

Because Schulz was assigned by the Nazis to sort out books for booty or banning, we see Joseph prolongedly sorting tomes, though neither the actor nor the script can invest this with significance. Evoking Bruno’s murder, the actress portraying his sister shoots Joseph with two fingers making like a gun. Such things are, if anything, an insult to Schulz’s memory.

From the loudspeakers, there is overloud music and even louder noise. Relationships and plot elements have to be guessed or inferred from the prior information. Thus because the boy Bruno was awed when his mother read him Goethe’s “Erlkönig,” the cast takes turns reciting bits of the poem, singly or jointly, in dubious German, to what enlightenment? The ten performers are painful to look at, resembling – at best – freakish caricatures à la Grosz, Beckmann, or Dix. The production, in that respect, echoes Schulz’s drawings, far less imaginative than his writings. Yet all this unsightliness lacks the sharpness of satire.

It is hard, if not impossible, to assess individual achievements. No one in the cast rises above the disjointedness and puerility of the shenanigans. But at least McBurney’s company is aptly named, complicity, even in French, meaning a criminal act such as we were subjected to. There are no actual crocs on view in The Street of Crocodiles, but you could say that the whole thing is a crock.

Crocodile Tears