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Stage Review

Chopin’s life and art, reconsidered, in ArtsEmerson’s ‘Chopin Without Piano’

Barbara Wysocka in ArtsEmerson’s presentation of “Chopin Without Piano.”Natalia Kabanow

“Chopin Without Piano’’: The title alone is a provocative contradiction in terms, like, say, “Brady Without Football’’ or “Trump Without Ego.’’

Actually, “Chopin Without Cant’’ might serve as an alternate title for this solo show, which ferociously unpacks and jettisons the nationalistic-sentimental baggage that has been attached to the composer’s name and legacy in a bid to reclaim a fuller identity for the paradoxical man behind the music.

Now at the Paramount Center Mainstage for a lamentably brief run that ends Saturday, the production is in Polish with English surtitles. . . . Hey, come back here!

Truthfully, the chief problem with the translated text, necessary though it is, is that it requires you to take your eyes off Barbara Wysocka’s blazing performance. And trust me, that is the last thing you want to do, because this remarkable actress embodies the craft of acting at its most passionately committed.


Wysocka and director Michal Zadara collaborated on the script for “Chopin Without Piano,’’ which takes an innovative approach to a consideration of Chopin’s life and work. The composer’s E-minor and F-minor concertos are skillfully performed at the Paramount by the Boston Conservatory Orchestra, conducted by Franck Ollu, but the pieces are shorn of their piano parts. Instead, Wysocka speaks the text in the meter that Chopin composed for the piano parts. The actress’s often frenetic delivery is transfixing to watch and to listen to during her roughly 85-minute monologue. There are auctioneers who speak more slowly than Wysocka does here.

Presented by ArtsEmerson, “Chopin Without Piano’’ is a production of the Polish theater company Centrala, and as such opens an intriguing window onto a culture wrestling with one of its icons, as if an American troupe were deconstructing the mystique surrounding George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Attired in an evening gown, Wyscocka offers sketches from Chopin’s career, including an account of a performance he gave at age 15 in a Warsaw salon when he improvised so energetically — an early instance of what the show calls his “piano radicalism’’ — that he pushed himself to the brink of unconsciousness. Later, as a composer, Chopin would face critical hostility, including one critic whose “aggressive disdain’’ for Chopin went so far as to describe his variations on Mozart as “Slavic vandalism.’’ The script draws in part on excerpts from the composer’s letters, often filled with anguish, despair, and accounts of his growing illness. (He died in 1849 at age 39 of tuberculosis.)


Wysocka confides in the audience, she rants, she expostulates, she gestures pleadingly at conductor Ollu, as if seeking understanding. For all its verbiage, it’s an intensely physical performance: The actress stands on a piano (yes, there is one), or sprawls across it, or kneels on it while systematically perusing pages of quotes about Chopin before tossing them to the floor. At one point she runs offstage, then returns.

Does all this veer toward melodrama at times? Yes. But it’s never less than engrossing as, with rigor and panache, Wysocka and Zadara advance their essential argument: that Chopin the man has been subordinated to Chopin the national hero and emblem of patriotism, and that his true meaning has been sanitized, simplified, hijacked.

A sardonic inflection in her voice, Wysocka reads from encomiums to the composer as the embodiment of “the national Polish soul’’ and “a bond that unites Poles.’’ The truth, “Chopin Without Piano’’ argues, is more complicated and more rooted in the individual struggles of a man who left Poland for good at age 20 and settled in Paris.


“Chopin is not the music of the beautiful Polish countryside but the music of a permanent break with Poland,’’ says Wysocka. “The music of a person who never recovered from this break with Poland, who was continually on the run. . .’’ At another point, she asks: “What has Poland done to Chopin? . . . Traditional sentimental Polish anti-intellectualism has turned Chopin into a provincial bard; it has reduced his alienation to homesickness; turned his unbridled sorrow into a sad nostalgia.’’

At moments like that, “Chopin Without Piano’’ transcends the particulars of Polish culture, reminding us that we all tend to take from artists what we need, when we need it. Small wonder that they sometimes feel the only two avenues open to them are to be ignored or to be praised for the wrong reasons.

Stage Review


Music by Frederic Chopin. Text by Barbara Wysocka and Michal Zadara. Directed by Zadara. Conducted by Franck Ollu. Production by Centrala. Presented by ArtsEmerson.

At Paramount Center Mainstage, through Nov. 14. Tickets $25-$75. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.