All images by Radovan Dranga
The Emperor of America
(based on a text by Martin Pollack)
Adapted by Michael Ditte
Directed by Iveta Ditte Jurčová
(Studio 12, Bratislava and Potôň Theatre, Bátovce)
Premiere: 4 May 2018 (Bratislava) and 11 May 2018 (Bátovce)
Date I Saw This Show: 6 May 2019
What I Saw
The Emperor of America is an intimate production, presented in-the-round, around a dirt box 30’ x 12’ that begins as a dirt field and ends filled with memories and detritus. Using physicality, image, and a striking puppet of an old man, the company of five actors portrays the story of Mendel Beck and Rifke Beck, embodying the Becks and the other figures in Mendel’s journey from Slovakia to the mines of Pennsylvania. Projection screens draw the gaze upward showing historical images that begin to shift and morph during the show.
Ditte’s adaptation draws from Martin Pollack’s text about the Galacian migration, which included 500,000 Slovak men migrating to the US, primarily Pennsylvania, in the 1880s. Ditte focused on a few characters from Pollack’s book, including siblings Mendel Beck, a cobbler, and Rifke Beck, who followed Mendel to the US. The traffickers used the lure of the “Emperor of America” to take advantage of migrants looking for a better life, leaving them ripe for exploitation in the US.
Jurčová’s production begins with a godlike half-beast/half-man figure towering over the fresh dirt field. The audience is seated with toes touching the edge of the dirt box (I’m told there was over a ton of dirt in the box) and the story begins. As the godlike figure moves away, a clear rectangular-cube filled with objects is revealed and the ensemble (Lubomír Bukový, Filip Jekkel, Matús Kvietik, Maja Danadová, and Eva Moresová) enters the barren dirt field. The dirt begins as a place without much promise as we look at provincial life before the immigration, when Mendel Beck is at home, but the lure of a better life is too strong.
The production plays on anachronism in costume and props which connect the migration of the Slovaks in the 1800s to the current migrant crises around the world today. Above the ring of audience members were screens where Erik Bartoš’s projections of historical photographs were often overtaken by digital effects translating the reality of the migrant experience into a theatrical language.
As Mendel begins his journey to America, Katarina Caková’s haunting old man puppet appears from the clear-cube to say its piece. As the old man gets left behind in the journey, the puppet gets left behind on the edge of the dirt pit, a reminder for the rest of the production of a way of life remembered, but lifeless.
Mendel’s journey leaves him stripped naked, a victim of anti-Semitism, and swindled, an odyssey playing out among the objects and the dirt. As conditions worsen for Mendel Beck, what initially looked like a moth in the theatre turned out to be the first insect of a swarm overtaking the historic images on the screens. The dirt’s promise of a better way of life is overtaken by the swarms.
Jurčová engages the senses when the ensemble cuts onions and bites into raw potatoes as their resources dwindle. When Mendel is working in the mines of Pennsylvania, he and another miner hold a block of ice above the clear cube, laboring and sharing the weight.
But the tragedy is not Mendel’s alone: when Rifke follows Mendel to the US, water slowly rises above the faces on the projections, and Rifke crawls inside the clear cube, a lifeless form in a transparent coffin.
This production made me aware of aspects of US History that had eluded me, including the connections to the Rust belt, but more importantly it made me realize how long people have been taking advantage of migrants and their desire for a life better than one of hard dirt and no promise.
*The jury awarded The American Emperor an honorable mention for video and production design at the awards for Nova Drama/New Drama 2019.