Rafał Maćkowiak, Agata Buzek and Dobromir Dymecki in Fantasia. Photo by Magda Hueckel

There’s nothing quite like surreal Polish improv comedy

A review of Fantasia, continuing this weekend at Festival TransAmériques.

Fantasia, one of 23 dance and theatre shows presented as part of the FTA (Festival TransAmériques), is an experimental one-hour Polish production based largely on improvisation, with the director, Anna Karasińska, reading prompts to the six actors from behind the audience.

If you can imagine for a moment a sort of fanciful collision of Whose Line Is It Anyway? with the Polish mini-series Dekalog, you’ll have some sense of the charming bleakness and light absurdism that characterises what is essentially an improv comedy performance.

The actors, regardless of physical fitness, all seem to exude a kind of despairing lumpiness at all times. An extreme minimalism reigns in the production design, with a single yogurt container as the only prop. This may sound solemn, and it certainly can be, but the jokes about shame and nostalgia landed with remarkable deftness.

Throughout, Karasińska seems to be playing with the nature of our relationships, abstracting them; toying with the idea of “types” of people. She displays a wonderful invention with her scenarios, all of which develop and grow with a peculiar yet lucid internal logic. Scenes can build from the totally esoteric (someone doing their thesis on the contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas) to the universal (a person ashamed to dance to a song they like).

Fantasia can ask a lot of its audience, as when Maria Maj, playing an old woman who hears voices, then also plays the nice weather above herself, but even in its fancifulness, there is a narrative cohesion, one that owes a great deal also to the subtle physical comedy of the performers. In a particularly funny sketch, Maj plays a wasp threatening a child with death, then giving the same child a vivid description of the total nothingness that awaits them in the afterlife.

Fantasia also repeatedly confronts very contemporary fears of going to the theatre, from public-sanitation neuroses to the fear of terrorist attacks. Oddly, however, Fantasia never toys with political identity, the sole exception being a joke about a Belgian man who’s just read about the Congo and tormented his drinking companions by telling them all about it. I’m sure this apolitical tone has done wonders for the show’s ability to tour widely, but the nature of Karasińska’s commentary about human nature really did seem to invite a dialogue about our political selves.

Even if Fantasia did eventually peter out in ways that seemed too vague and cheerful for the tone it had established earlier, the overall sensation was still greatly satisfying. Its playfulness feels genuinely curious: grounded in an unassuming fascination with human strangeness. ■

Fantasia continues at the Centaur Theatre (453 St-Francois Xavier) May 25 and May 26, 7 p.m., $36–$42