NY Premier of ‘Broken Nails: A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue’ with Anna Skubik

Broken Nails
Anna Skubik with the Marlene Dietrich puppet. Photo by Filip Lupa.

Beautiful, determined, intelligent and controversial, Marlene Dietrich was a transcendent symbol of femininity and a woman of very strong character. Fascinating to both men and women, her personality has seduced Anna Skubik, a Polish actress and puppeteer, who animates this German icon in the form of a life-size puppet in “Broken Nails: A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue.”

The play portrays Marlene and her maid Gloria, both played by Skubik, in a co-dependent relationship during the star’s last days in her Paris apartment. The piece, performed in English, will have its New York premiere November 11 to 21, 2010, presented by La MaMa E.T.C. in association with The Polish Cultural Institute in New York. Author and director is Romuald Wicza-Pokojski, founding director of Teatr Wiczy in Torun, Poland. The English translation is by Richard Chetwynd. “Broken Nails: A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue” is one of six productions of “La MaMa Puppet Series IV-Built to Perform,” a festival dedicated to puppet artists from all over the world.

In the performance, Ms. Skubik slips back and forth between her roles as meek servant and haughty star with such virtuosity that it is easy to forget there is only one woman on stage. The play is a compelling study of womanhood, from all that is eternal and archetypal about women to their more ephemeral, fragile, and unsustainable personal qualities. The play is not so much about resurrecting Marlene Dietrich as showing the legendary star as she deals with her fading beauty and imminent death. It is inspired in part by the strange story of the thousands of objects–ranging from letters, poems, and photographs to feathers and half-smoked cigarettes–that were hoarded by the reclusive performer during her last thirteen years.

Anna Skubik has been characterized as a one-woman tour de force in this show. The maid, Gloria, dresses in a white shirt and black pants, evoking the image of the young Dietrich. After a few scenes, the audience recognizes that the relationship between the star and her maid is complicated by dynamics of dependency and desire. It seems that in all of those relations, the puppet dominates the human being, but Ms. Skubik’s live character can also be read as the embodiment of youth, contrasting with the figure of an old woman distraught by her anticipation of mortality.

The puppeteer is always in intimate contact with the puppet, and in one scene she integrates with it, so that the singing Marlene has the doll’s upper body and Anna Skubik’s legs. Ms. Skubik gives Ms. Dietrich a deep, slightly hoarse voice, while Gloria’s voice is more shy and girlish. There is a swirl of dialogue, a rapid shifting of views and opinions and a roller coaster ride from high emotions to peace and tranquility.

Ms. Skubik’s deft handling of props, costume changes, and stage management has already earned her a Grand Prix award at the prestigious All-Poland Solo Performance Festival in 2008 in Wroclaw and at the Most Innovative Puppeteer award at the International Puppet Festival of Prague (2009). Grazyna Antoniewicz wrote in Polska Dziennik Baltycki, “Anna Skubik’s puppet performance is a revelation. The audience can sense that there are two individuals on stage – in a show with an abundance of interesting ideas, energetic acting, and dynamic creation of images.”

Skubik has performed the play in four languages: English, Polish, Greek and Spanish.

When it appeared in the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival in 2009, reviewer Paul Cleary wrote, “While the interaction between the maid and Dietrich show off Anna’s puppetry skills, ‘Broken Nails’ really shines in its musical numbers. Dietrich’s reflection of her life leads to her singing many songs she never got the chance to perform on stage such as Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ and ‘La Vie On Rose.’ Not renowned for her particularly amazing vocals, none can deny Dietrich certainly had a unique voice, and Skubik captures her essence so exquisitely that I found myself mentally accusing her of miming (accusations that fell flat). She was just that good.”

The show was presented at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles from February 13 to March 28, 2010. The Los Angeles Times (David C. Nichols) wrote, “Skubik’s impish take on the chasm between image and reality is fascinating, hitting edgy notes worthy of Grotowski.”

Anna Skubik (Concept/Performer) grew up in Poland, where she graduated from the National Academy of Theatre and Puppetry in Wroclaw. She has lived and acted in Wroclaw and Torun in Poland, and abroad in Norway, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Armenia, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic. Prior to developing her solo performance, “Broken Nails,” Ms. Skubik worked as a puppeteer at the Baj Pomorski in Torun, where performances included repertory puppet shows mainly for children and young adults.

Inspired by ancient Greek tragedy, she moved to Greece with no money and no employment. Supporting herself in various odd jobs, Skubik became a professional living statue, stilt walker, fire juggler, and actress performing Modern Greek Theater and TV serials in Athens. “Broken Nails” premiered in Torun and has toured throughout Europe, receiving the Grand Prix at the OFTJA Solo Performance Festival in Wroclaw (2008) and the Most Innovative Puppeteer award at the International Puppet Festival of Prague (2009). Ms. Skubik and Anthony Nikolchev are currently in development for several new works to continue the Dual Citizens project to eliminate passports, under which they each performed their solo works at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles in March 2010.

Romuald Wicza-Pokojski (Author and Director) is the founder and the director of the Teatr Wiczy in Torun, Poland. Dramatist, cultural activist, and graduate of the Theatre Academy in Warsaw, Wicza-Pokojski creates cultural and educational projects for children and adults. His plays have ignited debate about homelessness, labor laws, and emigration among other issues. Each new production is eagerly awaited and provokes a great deal of commentary. The Wiczy Theatre, which he founded in 1991 in Brodnica (it moved to Torun in 1988), is run as a laboratory, with theater research being a central activity. Wicza-Pokojski has written, “Our work is the expression of our lives, the lives of other young people, and the world we inhabit. Our problems, complexes, and failures ‘create’ our protagonists, both on stage and in our everyday lives. Today the theater is a place for searching, touching, analyzing, and asking questions.” Wicza-Pokojski raises aesthetic issues, as well, drawing on the language of the great modern experimentalist of the Polish theatre, Jerzy Grotowski: “Image synthesis, hard movement, and abridged words – these are the means of expression used in creating the place of action, the virtual unit of time. These are the images of the ‘poor theatre’ present in our plays.” In 2007 the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage honored Mr. Wicza-Pokojski with an award for his contribution to the development of Polish Culture.

The La MaMa Puppet Series is now an annual event, curated by Denise Greber. It carries on La MaMa’s tradition, since its inception, of supporting puppet theater artists from all over the world. This year’s series has five other performance events. The series will open with the latest work by Italy’s Dario D’Ambrosi (Pathological Theater), “Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads,” from October 14 thru October 30. “Chopin-An Impression” by Bialystok Puppet Theatre will be presented October 21 to November 7 in association with The Polish Cultural Institute in New York. From Brooklyn comes “Wake Up, You’re Dead,” directed and designed by Aaron Haskell, October 29 to November 7. A family and children’s puppet theater attraction, “Folktales of Asia and Africa,” will be performed by Jane Catherine Shaw October 16 to November 7. The festival will conclude with “In Retrospect” by LOCO7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company, directed, choreographed and designed by Colombia-born Federico Restrepo with music composed by Elizabeth Swados, November 12 to 28.

There will also be Gallery Exhibit at La MaMa’s La Galleria, 6 East First Street, with puppets displayed from artists of the series, from October 21 to November 7. La MaMa will have its fall gala October 25, celebrating its 49th season by honoring Cheryl Henson of the Jim Henson Foundation.

The “La MaMa Puppet Series IV–Built to Perform” is supported by the Jim Henson Foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, NYSCA and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Performances of “Broken Nails: A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue” will be November 11 through 21, Thursdays through Saturdays at 10:00 PM and Sundays at 5:30 PM. Tickets are $15. La MaMa E.T.C. Is located in Manhattan’s East Village, at 74A East Fourth Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue. The box office number is (212) 475-7710 and tickets can be purchased online at www.lamama.org.