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'The Tailor of Inverness' Unearths a Family History

Matthew Zajac’s one-man show reveals dark family truths in the Brits Off Broadway Festival.

Photo by Tim Morozzo

Mateusz Zajac, the tailor of Inverness, has a story not unlike many others of his generation. Conscripted to fight in WWII, he traveled across Eastern Europe and beyond, struggling to survive, and once the war ended struggled to find a new place to call home. But as his son Matthew unearths as he puts on his play, the history is never really that simple.

The Tailor of Inverness, part of 59E59's Brits Off Broadway Festival, proves that a one-man historical show can be so much more than just that. Writer and performer Matthew Zajac has created a piece in which we are never quite sure just how biographical it is, as layers of half-truth and hyperbole conceal just what was left behind and forgotten in the war. He also tells a gripping tale of a part of WWII many are unfamiliar with, from conflicting loyalties on the Eastern Front to the emerging ethnic infighting between the Poles and the Ukrainians that arose, bloody and unending, in the Nazis' aftermath.

The play is performed by a single actor accompanied only by a phenomenal violinist, Aidan O'Rourke, and a series of projections to add in any necessary information that the audience may be lacking--usually maps charting the tailor's painstaking journeys across Europe or subtitles to translate the many Polish segments of the piece. The device is used effectively, adding to the speaker's story without feeling like we are caught in a history or a geography lesson, but does occasionally leave viewers preferring to watch the screen than the performer.

Rather than telling his story in chronological order, our tailor begins with the simplest moments, the most manageable hardships, and slowly progresses into the parts of his past that are the hardest to talk about. We begin in Scotland, with his blossoming new career and the occasional factory fire, then his childhood in eastern Poland after WWI and finally into a story of conscription, imprisonment and battle in the second World War. But it doesn't end there--we get another version of events, and then another, and finally Matthew intrudes in on Mateusz's tale and we realize that the tailor of Inverness has been far from truthful with us, or with his son.

The second half of The Tailor of Inverness is what distinguishes this performance from your typical one-man play. Deftly bouncing back and forth between the characters of his father and himself, Zajac tells us of the research project that begun this play, his journey back to his father's birthplace and all that he discovers about the life his father left behind. Though the pacing slows down a fair bit from the high-adrenaline scenes of dodging Soviets and Nazis from the first half of the play, the cognitive dissonance of the two narrators is fascinating, emphasizing the true trauma of living through a war in which what side you fought on didn't even matter.

And bit by bit, the meaning behind the folk songs and poems interwoven through Mateusz's story become clear, as does the little girl's dress hanging over the top corner of the screen.

Zajac also does a great job with props, expanding the tools of a tailor's trade into weaponry, a full cast of supporting characters and more. Whether it's tossing a scarf over a mannequin to call his childhood loves into being, the rapid spinning of the garment rack during his flight from Russia or the sinister recurring lesson about hunting the fox, demonstrated with scissors and a spool of thread, the performer weaves the tailor identity into every element of the play. Even the projector's screen is made up of a patchwork of clothing, while hanging jackets become the friends and foes he encounters throughout his life.

By the end of the play, we have learned a range of hard and incomplete truths about this famed Polish tailor. The story becomes less about discovery and more about Matthew's struggle to come to terms with what his father never told him, while the audience struggles along with him. It's clear that there's far more to this story than we will ever know, but even so, it's certainly a tale worth telling.

The Tailor of Inverness plays at 59E59 through May 3.

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