Dec 052011

Madness: For Witkiewicz, the play’s the thing

Ask the question, 'Is the artist doomed?' Find hope with Hanna Bondarewska, the Ambassador Theater, and, surprisingly, Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity.Photo: Gediyon Kifle
Sunday, December 4, 2011 - Not What You Expect with Mary L. Tabor by Mary Tabor

WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2011 — The artist is mad, insane, suicidal. In The Madman and the Nun, a play set entirely in a lunatic asylum, we meet poet Alexander Walpurg, who’s diagnosed with “acute dementia praecox” and bound by a straitjacket.

Theater goers, confined with him for 65 fast-moving minutes, are in for a hilarious romp as they are drawn into Walpurg’s profound commentary on creativity and madness.

Polish absurdist playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), who himself committed suicide in 1939 at age 54, wrote this surreal, engaging, erotic and biting satire of psychoanalysis and the perils of the artist in 1923.

Hanna Bondarewska and the cast of 'Madman.' Hanna Bondarewska and the cast of ‘Madman.’ (Photo credits: Dediyon Kifle.)

Director Hanna Bondarewska has created a spirited update of the play. The patient’s file is handed to the viewer on entering, and it conveniently functions as the drama’s program notes. Two live computer screens illuminate the action on stage, transmitting real time images of the poet Walpurg. A brand new app for the iPad is unveiled when the trendy device becomes a weapon that’s used to beat our anti-hero.

Bondarewska brings this play to a close, gloriously, lightly, and ingeniously by deploying the song “Chapel of love” and blending it into Witkacy’s surreally happy ending. This and other theatrical touches have earned for Bondarewska the attention of the current batch of literary scholars who are now giving Witkacy his belated due.

After she performed a staged reading of Witkacy’s Country House, she says, “I got phone calls from Professors Daniel Gerould and Mark Rudnicki,” experts on the playwright’s work which also includes an extensive portfolio of paintings. As a result of these conversations, “They asked me to perform at their conference last year.” That formed the seed of this new production that inspired Gerould to journey to DC to see. Clearly, Bondarewska has earned his attention, and she deserves ours as well.

Madman and Nun.Madman Walpurg (John Stange) and Nun, Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan), up close and personal.

In The Madman and the Nun, Bondarewska has brought to the fore the dangers facing the creative soul, which she describes as “misunderstanding and vulnerability.”

In Madman, Walpurg expresses the pain of creation to Sister Anna, who releases him from the straitjacket, gives him a pencil, and quickly becomes his lover:

“I’m composing poetry again now. But I think my poems are getting worse. I can’t write anymore. But then you can also use a pencil to kill yourself.”

The artist’s suffering for lack of appreciation permeates the play. It seems to parallel the trajectory of the playwright’s own life. Witkacy’s contemporaries and friends – painters, composers, and, most well-known to Americans, pianist Artur Rubenstein – eclipsed him.

Madman.One of the Madman’s many looks.

For the playwright, competition constitutes only part of the artist’s dilemma and the play’s territory. The poet’s vulnerability to all he sees, his own unconscious mind, his openness to the pain of others, his ability to see what the other has been through—all these feed his art yet drive him toward madness.

Witkacy has a lot of company. Here is an abbreviated list of just some of the artists who have died by their own hand:

  • The poet Paul Celan
  • The painter Vincent Van Gogh
  • The poet Sylvia Plath
  • The novelist Virginia Woolf
  • The painter Mark Rothko
  • The novelist Ernest Hemingway
  • Most recently, the novelist David Foster Wallace


Vincent Van Gogh said of his own recurring breakdowns,

And perhaps the disease of the heart is caused by this. One does not rebel against things, it does no good; nor is one resigned to them; one’s ill because of them and one does not get better.”

Must it be this way?

William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, describes in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madnesshis dependence on alcohol and his journey through depression.

Like the poet Baudelaire, he despaired, I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.

He adds:

“As for that initial triggering mechanism—what I have called the manifest crisis—can I really be satisfied with the idea that abrupt withdrawal from alcohol started the plunge downward? … Or could it be that a vague dissatisfaction with the way in which my work was going—the onset of inertia which has possessed me time and time again during my writing life, has made me crabbed and discontented—had also haunted me more fiercely …?”

He, like Witkacy’s poet, finds a way through the morass, depending on how the viewer chooses to read the ending of the play. That duplicity, the either/or, the to-be-or-not-to-be, is the territory of the play.

Bondarewska, artistic director of DC’s Ambassador Theater troupe, fully understands the artist’s plight. In presenting Madman here, she wants to make a difference. The play for her is the thing but not the only thing. She teaches through her program Ambassadors of International Culture and is now working with children at Hoffman-Boston Elementary school in Arlington, Virginia.

Sister Anna and Assistant.Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan) lets her hair down while an Assistant in the asylum (James Randle) looks on and exercises his imagination.

Her aim is to to build confidence, communication and hope. She wants to insulate the young mind against the vulnerability the creative soul faces. But in addition, she lives for the artist in us all. “In today’s world of technology,” she says, “the artist’s time is ever more narrowed to be free, to be devoted to their art.” Her greatest fear is that the contemporary artist, like Witkacy, will choose suicide rather than go on living and creating art.

The Madman and the Nun is a witty, lively, but extraordinarily thoughtful play. Theatergoers, artists, creative souls and anyone who wants both a fast romp and an intellectual challenge should carve some time out of their busy schedules to take in this most unusual play.

The Madman and the Nun runs through Dec. 18, 2011, 8 pm at Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street, NW, Washington, DC. Tickets: $30. Students and senior citizens $20. Buy tickets online or at the door.

The question remains, “Is the artist doomed?” For a positive take, listen to Elizabeth Gilbert who gave the following TED talk on precisely that question. This clip is on the long side, so sample as much as you wish.

Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster” Find out more at


Dec 042011

The Madman and the Nun at Ambassador Theater

By Charlotte Asmuth – December 5, 2011

The Mead Theatre is, indeed, a lab. As soon as you enter the lobby, you are immersed in what appears to be an art exhibit — yes, you are in the right place — and invited to peruse programs in the guise of medical files.

David Berkenbilt as Dr. Grun and Mary Suib as Sister Barbara in “The Madman and the Nun.” Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

The theatrical experiment begins fittingly early for Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s The Madman and the Nun, in which Dr. Bidello (a dementedly overdramatic Ivan Zizek) is only too eager to pawn his job of curing a deranged poet, Walpurg (John Stange), off on an unlucky nun and a freewheeling psychiatrist. Walpurg turns out to be the poet his new caregiver, Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan), read with her ex-fiancé, an engineer who committed suicide. This disclosure prompts Walpurg to quip, cheerfully, “So nowadays even engineers can have problems like that?” In no time at all, Sister Anna has returned Walpurg’s “I love you” and renounced her religion on his behalf. Let the farce begin.

Director Hanna Bondarewska has neatly orchestrated both the quietude necessary for the intimate moments between Walpurg and Sister Anna and the chaotic hilarity that ensues when the entire cast is onstage. Her swooping choreography when Anna helplessly joins Walpurg in a looping rocking sequence in one scene is mesmerizing.

 Jen Bevan as Attendant (Alfreda), James Randle as Attendant (Pafnutius),  Mary  Suib as Sister Barbara, Jenny Donovan as Sister Anna, David Berkenbilt  as Dr.  Grun and John Stange as Walpurg (Madman) in ‘The Madman and the  Nun.’  Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

The ensemble is comprised of Mary Suib (as the chastising Sister Barbara with a “penitence complex”), David Berkenbilt (as the doctor with “a little too much of the sexual” in his theory), Ray Converse as the batty Professor Walldorff, James Randle and Jen Bevan as Attendants. Berkenbilt is delightfully absurd. When Walpurg kills Dr. Bidello in a fit of whimsical jealousy, he exclaims, “This is unheard of! So you really feel alright?” He is laughably recognizable as the psychiatrist who gets ‘treated’ by the patient. The croaky catch in Suib’s voice slows down her delivery making her punch lines all the better. Converse plays Walldorff as sexually ambiguous, making his critique of Berkenbilt’s “too sexual” theory all the more ironic.

John Stange brings a warm, strange humor to his portrayal of the straitjacketed, insane poet who oscillates between sarcastic cheeriness and paranoia, sometimes by merely redirecting the distance of his gaze. You’ll laugh hard when Walpurg and Anna are caught in flagrante because Jenny Donovan keeps the timid nun’s sexuality subtly latent.

Costume Designer Jen Bevan decks Donovan’s Anna out in a hot pink dress with chunky, sparkling heels to match. Set Designer Daniel Pinha has two monitors emitting colorful EEG waves on either side of a mounted mattress in the center of the stage. Marianne Meadows’ lighting effectively evokes the prison that is the sanitarium and David Crandall’s sound design is quietly omnipresent.

The finale is dissociation of the self-physicalized – and theatre of the absurd realized.

Running time: About 90 minutes.

The Madman and the Nun plays through December 18, 2011, at Ambassador Theater at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 315-1306, or order them online.

To Read:

Oct 282011
Notes from the Rehearsals
October 17, 2011
Discovering Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (AKA WITKACY)
(1885-1939) Dramatist, poet, novelist, painter,  photographer, art theorist, and philosopher, Witkacy was  one of the leading members of Poland‘s poetic and artistic  avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century.
Read through the play of “The Madman and the Nun”
- Life and Death of Witkacy
- Witkacy’s Demons
-Did he really die or it was his another trick?
- Interesting concept and various ideas about his life, death and  artistic mind
October 21, 2011
Discovering the style of Witkacy’s Pure Form in the theater
how his theory applies to the theater
-analyzing his paintings and portraits and photographs
- reading the play with various voices
- searching for various voices, emotional states, levels
October 24, 2011
- Read though the entire play
- analyzing the characters and the relationships
- playing with the rhythms, tempos, traveling from one emotional state to another
October 26, 2011
These are the different ideas we had in this read through of the script:
- A shrieking of madness
- The switch of sanity between Walpurg and Anna
- Finding more fluidity for Walpurg
- Finding clarity through the chaos
- Finding Grun’s actions through frustration and desperation. He can come off as rigid and condescending
- The play is sounding like sandpaper, rough and gritty
October 27, 2011
All the characters seen through the Walpurg’s eyes are machine like with its own set of parts that move, talk and react within the confinement of the machine’s – values, ideas specifications,agendas. At the end the machines malfunction and all the characters turn into a pulpy mass.


Oct 062011

The Ambassador Theater is delighted to present The Madman and the Nun or, There is Nothing Bad Which Could Not Turn into Something Worse by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), a short play in three acts and four scenes.

The Madman and the Nun is set entirely in a “cell for raving maniacs” in a lunatic asylum, where we meet the madman of the title, the poet Alexander Walpurg, who has been confined here with acute dementia praecox.  We are part of a scientific experiment lead by Dr. Grun and his Freudian preconception of curing the patient with the help of Sister Anna, a nun. The author flamboyantly turns everything and everybody into the confusion between the sanity and madness. The play is a strikingly funny attack on both medicine and academia and man’s futile attempt to control the “demons” of existence. Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was a Polish playwright, novelist, painter, photographer and philosopher. “He created a theater of the absurd twenty years before Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. He himself was a living model of the avant-garde, advancing the frontiers of drama, fiction, aesthetics, philosophy and painting.” Daniel Gerould




Aug 052011

Ambassador Theater is looking to hire a Stage Manager and Set Construction Crew for the upcoming production of “The Madman and the Nun” –Previews Nov. 29 and 30, Opening December 1. The show runs Th. – Sundays until December 18, 2011

The rehearsals will start 2nd week of October.

Please submit your resume with the cover letter at:

Aug 052011

Ambassador Theater invites you to a casting call for a production of “The Madman and the Nun” by Stanislaw Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), translated by Daniel Gerould, directed by Hanna Bondarewska on Monday, August 8, 2011 from 6-10 p.m. at the Watergate at Landmark, Community Center ( Entrance from the swimming pool side), 205 Yoakum Pkwy, Alexandria VA 22304
We are also casting for the rest of the season as well!
Make sure to get your parking pass at the main entrance to Watergate and leave on your dashboard Tell the guard that you are coming to visit Hanna ( When you register on this website–get your specific ticket your name will be already given to the guard as well)–enter the Watergate and drive in, the swimming pool will be on your left, you may look for a parking at the parking lots. Until 10 p.m. you are fine to park anywhere, follow the signs.
The show will open December 1, 2011 (Previews November 29 and 30) at the Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW Washington DC and it will run Th-Sundays until December 18, 2011
We are looking to cast the following characters:
Walpurg (Poet)
Nun Anna
Nun Barbara
Dr. Bidello
Dr. Grun
Professor Waldurf
Two attendants
Please pick one ticket that has a specific time slot for your audition, come earlier to get ready to read from the script. Please bring your resume and a calendar. If you have any questions, please e-mail me at or call at (703) 475-4036.
Break a leg!

– Register online: Event Calendar