Screaming heads intertwined. A silver sculpture as sleek as a brand-new Lexus. Imperious pillars framing a Picasso-style collage.
Those are just three of the many images that inform Luminaries: In the Shadow of the Polish Avant Garde—a definition-defying extravaganza that blends theatre, puppetry and dance.
The production, staged at Shaking the Tree Theatre, focuses on art from the 20th-century Polish avant-garde movement—during which the Eastern European nation experienced a surge of revolutionary imagination and invention.
"A hundred years ago, we got our independence, and artists started to think about what the world should look like, how we should design our future," says Polish theater director Dagmara Zabska. "It was so intense."
That intensity is what Zabska and her creative partner, Portland performer and producer Summer Olsson, seek to capture in Luminaries. The show was spurred by the duo's desire to make the work of legendary Polish artists Maria Jarema, Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzeminski accessible to a 21st-century audience.
Luminaries is proudly nontraditional. Over the course of an hour, audiences are invited to move through a series of surreal performances, some of which are interactive. The team behind Luminaries—which includes performers from the Polish theater company Teatr Figur Kraków—makes the Polish avant-garde art movement immersive.
"When there's some sort of exchange between the performer and the audience member," Olsson says, "it creates a dynamic exchange, a feedback loop."
That idea inspired, among other things, an unusual set that references the work of painter Władysław Strzeminski and literally envelops the audience.
"You can go inside and there will be pillows and white sheets and you'll be in this white tent of screens," Olsson says. "You, as an audience member, can get inside there and lie down. It's very beautiful, because then you're inside the painting."
While the works of artists like Strzeminski visually shape the show, Olsson and Zabska are interested more in emotive concepts than the art itself. For example, the paintings of Maria Jarema heavily influenced Luminaries, but Zabska says, "It's more about taking a sense of her art then being loyal to one painting."
In that vein, one component of Luminaries portrays Jarema as a puppet cuttlefish "who is showing her brother cuttlefish her new painting," says Olsson—a reference to the play The Cuttlefish, for which Jarema designed the costumes.
Puppetry is also a prominent component of the performance. Olsson grew up fascinated by the Muppets and Jim Henson's film Labyrinth, while Zabska's interest in puppets flourished as an adult.
"I'm more childlike now at 40 than I was when I was 10, somehow," Zabska says. "As a kid, I was quite responsible. I was like a 10-year-old adult girl. And when I grew up and found my art, I found so much freedom. I feel like I became a child again."
Along with the personal resonance of Luminaries, what thrills Olsson and Zabska the most is the chance to honor an era of art that they revere.
"When you say something about any kind of art movement, you can automatically alienate a bunch of people who will think, 'I don't know anything about art, that's not for me,' or 'That's too esoteric,'" Olsson says. "And what we're trying to do is make a show that is open for everybody—including for children and for people who don't know anything about art."
SEE IT: Luminaries: In the Shadow of the Polish Avant Garde is at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., facebook.com/pdxpuppetcollective. 7 and 9 pm Friday, 2 and 7 pm Saturday-Sunday, July 27-29. $20.