Images by Ewa Kowalska
Television shows like Vinyl and The Deuce (both on HBO), seem(ed) to love reveling in the filth and the fury of 1970s New York City, romanticizing a time when living in Gotham was very often a literally harrowing experience. Yet even well into the ’90s, downtown NYC was notorious for its vigorous drug trade, and for the tragic junkies caught up in its deadly whirlwind.
Now the Lower East Side flaunts luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. But the memory of all that decadence and degradation is still fresh to many. And writer-director Emil Varda, whose striking 2018 All Roads Lead to the Kurski Station brought Eastern European emotional exigency to the East Village, has a new play, The Sickness, which reaches back to that New York of two-and-a-half-or-so decades ago for metaphorical puissance and affectiveness.
It references The Odyssey for its narrative arc, but as previously stated is set in the LES of the 1990s, which was still feeling the hangover of a more debauched time. Yet Varda (who came of age as a Polish resistor to the Soviet regime) insists it is all in the service of a sort of allegorical commentary on the current and troubling state of the West.
We caught up with him to discuss The Sickness, which runs until February 29 at the Access Theatre in Tribeca.
What is viscerally significant about setting a play on the LES of the 1990s?
The play is inspired by the work of Glenn O’Brien, who saw my first version of All Roads Lead to the Kurski Station in the late ’80s, and for many years after provoked me to come back to the theatre. When I finally decided to heed his advice, and we even agreed to produce one of his plays together, he was sadly not able to participate.
He was a central figure of downtown Manhattan at that time?
Yes, and the play in a certain way seeks to honor his legacy and vision. It really could be set anywhere downtown, it’s not so specific to the LES, as to the culture of downtown New York at that time in general. In those days, the LES and East Village were probably forgotten by God and definitely by the NYPD. Of course, the crime and drug trade thrived there like crazy. But it was also a special place, in a lot of ways. There is truth in all the mythology. There was a spirit of bohemianism then, many artists and poets. All of this was going on when I first moved to the city, and it was exciting to be involved in. It was accessible.
What is the essence of the story?
In my opinion, the play is about the everyday terror of living in this crazy, messed up world which eludes our control. We use a pair of heroin addicts as a metaphor for our common sickness; they are both bohemian, aspiring artist types. I should note that they aren’t exactly lovers, or even friends…they are simply bound together by their addiction. I think a lot of what happens for them in this play is about reckoning with the tragedy of feeling that one has wasted one’s life and potential, while feeling powerless to turn anything around.
But you haven’t opted for traditional narrative form?
It’s closer to a poetically written slice of life. You could say it’s a collection of snapshots, that hopefully convey a sense of a certain way of living. All the theatre that I create is influenced by the style of the Polish avant-garde, because that is my background, and that kind of work isn’t always easy to describe concisely. However, I do believe this play will be accessible to a New York audience, more so than my last play, which drew more upon Eastern European tradition. This is very much centered on New York, and it is to an extent influenced by real stories from people who experienced that time firsthand.
Is there a sense of romanticizing that time, or of just going back and reassessing it in the play?
Romanticism? It’s very hard for me to find much to romanticize about New York City back then. I’m not Patti Smith. For all that though, I stand by what I said before. There was something special about that time. I think most people are aware of what has been lost, in terms of the cultural life of New York City in the last couple of decades. It is hard not to feel some nostalgia and regret, even without losing sight of how difficult life really was then.
What is it about The Odyssey that offers relevant context to the struggle of heroin addiction?
The Odyssey is one of the central metaphors for life dreamed up by Western Civilization. It is evocative and relevant on a lot of different levels for me. I consider it a defining metaphor for the experience of feeling lost, being at sea, and beset by obstacles with no easy way home. Even the sense of sea sickness, the lack of ground beneath one’s feet…but at the same time, searching avidly for something. I draw a connection with the story of the Ship of Fools. If Odysseus loses his wits at last, I suppose that’s all that’s left.
You mention feeling powerless against our current (socio-political) reality? How does the play address that?
The 1970s in Poland were the most formative years for me. As a dissident in opposition to the Communist regime, I was immersed in a cultural milieu charged with revolt and rebellion, stirred on by an absolute romanticism of the highest human values. My sense of the world, and art’s role therein, was largely shaped during that time. When I first emigrated, I tried to do theatre in New York. Despite a positive response from individuals such as Glenn, as I mentioned earlier, in general I didn’t have a sense that the social climate was friendly and receptive to my message. For many years I didn’t do theatre at all.
You feel the climate is better now?
My experience during the last play has convinced me that something has shifted, and people are now seemingly interested and ready for the kind of work I am interested in creating. It feels like the right time to bring these aesthetic practices to bear on the 21st Century scene. Whatever is coming from the mass media is absolutely unacceptable, and certainly not the truth. It is a scary time for everyone—the world is being run by gangsters and opportunists. The Sickness is a product of this society. Even the pet animals are sick. My theatre is a kind of howl into this wilderness.
How do you feel about the drug culture having retreated to the suburbs, via the opioid epidemic? Does it turn the morality equation on its head? That the suburbs no longer get to view urbanity through a judgmental lens?
We are using Lower Manhattan and the disintegration and drug culture that thrived as a metaphor. We explore drug addiction in a more metaphorical, philosophical, probing way. We are not judging or moralizing. The sickness of drug addiction is intimately tied up with the sickness of society. I would say the suburbs may very well have good reason to be judgmental of urbanity, but I suppose this is no longer one of them.
Tell us about the actors in The Sickness.
The actors—Mia Vallet, Ryan Cupello, and Mark Lobene—are extremely talented, and I feel very lucky that they agree to put up with my madness. This is my second show working with Mia, and I am immensely thankful for our collaboration. Building an artistic community is very important to me, and so I am very happy when I can work with the same actors on different projects.
Do you feel a sense of independent theatre surviving and thriving despite NYC gentrification? Or has the struggle gotten harder?
I’m not a theatre critic, and I don’t go see many theatre productions anymore. From my own experience, it gets harder and harder every year. Don’t forget, in the USA there is no Ministry of Art and Culture at any level of the government. I’m just an observer…I fear that, in some time, I don’t know, maybe twenty or thirty years from now, Manhattan will be a tacky gated community, an asylum for the rich and powerful only.