Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 7 January 2018

Review: Margarete at The Public Theater (Under the Radar)

Public Theater ⋄ 4th - 15th January 2018

A woman’s unexceptional life becomes the subject of a documentary art investigation. Molly Grogan reviews.

Molly Grogan

Janek Turkowski in Margarete. Photo: Konfrontacje

The biggest surprise of Janek Turkowski’s Margarete is what 20 euros can buy you on the Germany-Poland border. That’s what Turkoswski, a theater maker in Szczecin, Poland, paid for a box of 64 8mm home movies and a working projector, cables and everything needed to watch them, one day in 2008, when a beach excursion got rained out and he headed for the local flea market.

The show he created from that find falls into the category of documentary art, but unlike another recent foray into the genre, Union Doc’s Say Something BunnyMargarete (named for the owner of the films) offers few other surprises. What it lacks in drama, however, it makes up for with a homespun charm and an affecting, respectful curiosity about the unexceptional life of an ordinary German woman.

Invited to Under the Radar, the show is performed for an intimate audience of a dozen spectators in a classroom in the top reaches of the Public Theater. The audience is served tea and coffee and invited to gather around a flower pattern rug that was hand-crocheted by Turkowski’s mother to cover the projector’s cables and give the performance space a cozy feel  (since I was seated on a cushion on the rug, at arms-length from Turkowski, he explained the rug’s provenance to me before the show started). We are meant to settle in for an hour of home movies in a Polish living room.

The show’s pacing and content never deviate from that premise. Kneeling over a laptop on another crocheted cushion, Turkowski explains in quiet, measured, wry tones, his attempts to make sense of the silent movies, a process that took him over a year of careful watching, some fantastical hypothesizing and a bit of help from friends and Google. It eventually led him to the retirement home where the films’ subject, Margarete Ruhbe, was still living in her late 90s. Unfortunately for Turkowski, Ruhbe was mostly blinded by cataracts and unable to offer any insights into the films’ content.

So Turkowski did what an artist might and had some fun with the reels, burning them to create fanciful and brooding images and setting them to Polish pop music or more moody melodies.  The films contain uneventful footage of Ruhbe’s tourist excursions, which she and her twin sister (whose life and identity, oddly, are not pursued by Turkowski) organized in the town of Wolgast, Germany. These moments of leisure are mostly captured in the form of what Turkowski accurately describes as “slow-moving landscapes”:  coastlines seen by boat or forests and fields taken in from the window of a bus.

What intrigues the theater-maker in Turkowski are the films’ rather obvious Socialist overtones of happy groups of workers cavorting in verdant countryside and invigorating maritime breezes, scenes that look as staged as anything you might see in the theater. His suspicion that Ruhbe’s movies follow an unconscious narrative of Socialist harmony is confirmed by other home movies from the period that he ordered on Poland’s version of eBay. But that is about all the punch that these reels pack.

Turkowski seems deflated at times by the ordinariness of his subject, a disappointment he acknowledges with a sardonic shrug, but he remains steadfast in his commitment to telling Margarete’s story. One tiny revelation awaits Turkowski at the end of his investigations, but I’ll leave it for you to discover, in the welcoming interior of a Polish woman’s living room and the artist’s empathetic imagination.

Margarete runs to January 15 in the Under the Radar festival. More production info can be found here.


Molly Grogan

Molly Grogan covered French and international theater for 20 years in Paris. She has written on theater for The Village Voice and American Theater and managed an Off-Broadway theater company. She is a translator of fiction and non-fiction with a Ph.D. in Francophone postcolonial literature and a Masters in social linguistics.

Review: Margarete at The Public Theater (Under the Radar) Show Info


Written by Janek Turkowski

Scenic Design Video by Margarete Ruhbe, Martyna Glowacka, Adam Ptaszynski, Marcin Piatkowski, Janek Turkowski

Cast includes Janek Turkowski

Running Time 55 minutes


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