For a man of 747 years, Marco Polo has aged well. Revealed as the subject of a circus sideshow in the Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s The Description of the World, the decrepit Polo is short on both life and wits. This disillusioned old man, played by Robert Rosen (who co-wrote and directed this production), recounts his travels as he remembers them.
Rosen’s play draws its story from an authentic historical event: During Polo’s confinement in a Genoese prison, he passed the time by telling stories of his adventures in the Orient-many of them probably invented. A fellow prisoner, a romance writer named Rusticello, prepared an embellished account of them known as The Description of the World.
Theatre de la Jeune Lune company member Luverne Seifert, who co-wrote the play with Rosen, plays Rusticello. In Seifert and Rosen’s version, however, Rusticello is not a prisoner or romance writer, but a sideshow announcer. The play begins with Seifert introducing Polo as his main attraction, pointing out a nearby carnival wagon, from which he reveals an emaciated and deeply furrowed Polo to the audience. Seifert offers the audience an opportunity to ask the famous traveler questions. However, Polo can barely raise his head to mutter “food” as his only, feeble response to each inquiry posed by the audience members. I wanted to ask how he managed to keep all of his hair for so many years, but I soon realized that I would be wasting my breath. Whatever asked of him, he would certainly respond with pathetic pleas for nourishment.
Seifert also plays Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler-an another authentic historical figure, although details of Polo’s relationship with the Khan remain sketchy-who is mesmerized by Polo’s tall tales. Polo reportedly enthralled the Khan with enchanting tales of his adventures and also appeased him by carrying out diplomatic missions throughout his empire. According to Polo’s accounts, Khan enjoyed Polo so much that he would not allow him to return home to Venice for several years.
Here, a company of Khan’s slaves provide ongoing comic relief with physical humor-a device common to Jeune Lune plays, and one that provides a certain cohesion in this otherwise episodic play. The Khan enjoys the leisure provided by his enthusiastic servants: one supports his leader’s feet with a T-shaped device; one cracks a coconut on the head of another; and one scratches his ruler’s head with an elongated stick.
The cast also uses simple props to indicate the complexities of lands visited by Polo on his adventures. Cast members twine rolls of silk-like cloth around their bodies and across the stage to indicate the Silk Road, the ancient travel route linking China with Rome. Later, the group implies a desert landscape by waving tan sheets around their bodies and rippling them. They then descend to their hands and knees, transforming themselves into a caravan of camels.
The Theatre de la Jeune Lune creatively-and quite minimally-stages this production. A crude set of scaffoldings function as Polo’s childhood Venetian home. The lack of structure to the set allows the Jeune Lune to show off its ingenuity. While elaborate sets work well for many plays, the minimalist approach is ideal for this production. Besides offering a frugal set design, the production’s uncluttered mise-en-scene provides an easily adaptable setup for a play that encompasses many settings. This technique also forces the audience to use its imagination: Since we are given less, we are allowed to visualize more.
How fitting that this play is staged as a circus sideshow, for Polo himself is such a spectacle. And, in the end, Polo is left to the confinement of his circus trailer, as Rusticello and his crew manipulate Polo as he had manipulated others for generations. Now Polo is a prisoner of his lies, and after 700 years, in an ironic coda, he finally recognizes his demise as he is tricked into returning to Rusticello’s captivation.
The Description of the World plays through November 4 at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, (612) 333-6200.