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Theatre in Review: The Tailor of Inverness (Dogstar Theatre Company/59E59)

Matthew Zajac. Photo: Tim Morozzo.

For the first third of its brief running time, The Tailor of Inverness appears to be a fairly routine example of the theatre of testimony, a moderately interesting account of a Polish survivor of World War II -- but wait a minute, for Matthew Zajac, the author and star, is playing a very tricky game. Zajac appears as his father, Mateusz, who, in the years after the war, prospered in the Scottish town of the title, making and repairing clothing. He spends several minutes explaining how he ended up in business for himself, then adds, "I've been here 35 years now. From the day I started, I never looked back." As it happens, there are very good reasons for that.

Speaking in a distinctive accent that mixes Polish gutturals with a Scottish burr, Mateusz recounts his eventful youth growing up in a Galician town where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews lived side by side; to demonstrate the harmony among ethnic groups, he even notes that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches shared the same building, holding services on alternate Sundays. There are harrowing details -- the boys of the town amused themselves unearthing and trying to dismantle bombs left over from World War I, an activity that left some of them blind or missing limbs -- but essentially he paints a sunny picture of a place where everyone gets along with everyone else.

Things begin to change in 1939, as Nazi ideology spreads like a virus, sowing dissension, and ethnic hatreds begin to poison daily life. By now, Mateusz is in the Polish army. Captured by the Russians, he ends up in Uzbekistan, where, he notes sardonically, he joins the ranks of "free workers from the oppressed Western capitalism." In 1942, Stalin declares amnesty for Polish soldiers, freeing them to fight the Nazis. Mateusz is unaware of the edict, but it creates a situation that allows him to escape to Tehran and, ultimately, Cairo, where he ends up in the British Army -- and, ironically, he finds himself fighting Poles who have been conscripted by the Nazis.

After the war, he is demobilized and makes his way to Glasgow, where he is reunited briefly with his brothers. His father is dead, and his mother remains in Poland. He concludes he cannot return home, for the Communists are in charge, and he fears being sent to a re-education camp. He remains in Scotland, marries a local woman, and raises a family. It's a reasonably touching story, filled with colorful details -- and mostly it consists of lies.

At this point, The Tailor of Inverness abruptly shifts gears as Matthew takes over, recounting his investigation into Mateusz's past. First contacting the British Army, he learns that Mateusz made two different official statements, offering sharply contradictory accounts of his wartime experiences. Making contact with his father's relatives, he learns more discomfiting details, leading to the discovery that Mateusz, before the war, started a family, a fact that he later erased from his life story. Suddenly, little details, including the recorded voice of a young girl reciting a poem about a dress that has been given to her, begin to occupy their rightful place in the larger narrative. And the first half of The Tailor of Inverness is revealed to be a carapace of half-truths and evasions, all deployed in the creation of Mateusz's new, post-war identity.

By no means an indictment, The Tailor of Inverness lays out the complex tangle of events that shaped Mateusz's turbulent life. A child of mixed Ukrainian-Polish heritage, he belonged to neither side when they turned on each other violently. And his military service -- the details of which he was most eager to suppress -- were affected by the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact, and its eventual breakdown. Still, the more he discovers the truth, the more Matthew must accept that his beloved father created a new self that acted as a kind of Potemkin village, hiding the darker truths and wrenching choices, not all of them revealed here, that he was unable to revisit.

I cannot imagine the psychic price Matthew Zajac must pay to portray his father, but he does it honorably and well, rendering him as a genial and spellbinding storyteller -- and only gradually revealing the torment that must have lurked underneath. As himself, he presents the facts he uncovers forthrightly and unsentimentally, letting them speak for themselves. (Certain details, such as the fact that the central square in Mateusz's town was repaved with tombstones from the Jewish cemetery, need no elaboration.) The Tailor of Inverness is the tale of a youth spent in a world gone mad, and, without excusing him, it implicitly dares us to wonder, Would we have done any better in such chaotic, perilous circumstances?

Ben Harrison's direction helps ensure that The Tailor of Inverness never strays into melodrama or sentimentality, and it features a sensible, yet eloquent, production design. The set, by Ali Maclaurin, is dominated by an upstage wall made out of garments; the edges of the wall are painted blue, and the center, which is white, serves as a surface for Tim Reid's projections of maps of Europe, passing railroad trains, and images of Mateusz's family at different points in their lives; he also provides subtitles for the passages delivered in Polish. (Maclaurin also dresses Zajac in a well-chosen pair of wool beltless slacks, a white shirt, and a narrow tie, making him look every inch the tailor 50 years ago.) Kai Fischer's lighting design uses a tiny number of instruments, even for 59E59's Theatre C, to create a wide variety of looks. Timothy Brinkhurst's sound design includes such effects as explosions, marching feet, and voices raised in song. Special mention must be made of the violinist Aidan O'Rourke, whose playing, so carefully tied to the text, adds an extra dimension of power.

The Tailor of Inverness ends with Matthew visiting the sister he never knew he had. He imagines Mateusz accompanying him and what emotions he might have felt; in any case, he makes clear that this trip is the beginning of understanding, and forgiveness. "We are children of war," his new sibling says of them. True -- and so was their father. -- David Barbour

(20 April 2015)

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