By Bob Shuman
Historians, looking back at contemporary American theatre, will have to evaluate whether our stages were reflections of society or partisan distortions. Were our artists “living in the truth,” as former Czech president Václav Havel would ask, or were they politically motivated, sold out, blindsided, outfinanced, or unable to speak due to silencing opinion-makers, the market, or even Google, facebook, or twitter. A work like Rob Ackerman’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, from The Working Theater, which played off-Broadway, during June and July, sees America’s employed as powerless and compliant–and the boss as original and supremely intelligent, even while he demonstrates only basic knowledge. In Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which ran at Second Stage this spring and summer, the highlight is the storytelling, although the characters are types—the smart, contemporary woman, the sensitive, uncloseted gay actor, and the disturbed soldier—all meeting progressive expectations. What audiences may not be questioning, though, is to what degree the arts in the U.S. are really free—and this is where a writer like Havel, whose rarely performed Vanek plays (three of them here, of four; banned during communism), are now running at PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) until August 4, alongside two short pieces by Beckett and Pinter, in Havel: The Passion of Thought. Even if most Americans can not know the horror of life in Czechoslovakia, in the last century, one of the short plays in the evening, a two-hander called “Protest” is a pros-and-cons checklist for the conscience, universally true for anyone who must challenge authority, in any of its guises–or even only intends to send a tweet. America itself has powerful censoring mechanisms, despite the First Amendment, strongly expressed in 1978 by Russian Nobelist and Soviet labor camp survivor, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Thomas Farnan, in Human Events, reminds us, wrote that the media, Western news reporting, “[endorses] ‘fashionable trends of thought and ideas’ while suppressing ‘independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.’” Solzhenitsyn was severely criticized—in fact, told to go back where he came from, like “the Squad” today–but his observation regarding “fashionable trends of thought and ideas” is essential when thinking about American arts.
“The Protest” is set in Prague, outside a lovely garden home, marked by flowering magnolias and gladiolas–in thirty-two shades–of a television and film writer (played robustly by Danielle Skraastad), who admits that she is “pushing fifty.” She must make a decision on bold action, regarding a court decision, thinking aloud to an old theatrical friend, a dissident (a non-judging David Barlow): “When the rest of us want to do something of ordinary human decency, we automatically turn to you as though you were some sort of agency for the conduct of moral matters. Perverse, isn’t it? Sickening, isn’t it?” Her choice is to regain her self-esteem, lost freedom, and honor, even if it means losing her job—or to continue living on “the path of accommodation” and “shameful compromise.” She realizes that she must be made an example of, and punished cruelly, if she chooses the first option. She would be the bad conscience of people who do not act, and who will smear her, ultimately thinking her decision stupid, nothing more. The dilemma is not simply Eastern European, of course, and must be made not only by the accommodating characters in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson (also set in the television industry), but also in other contexts, such as teachers’ rooms in academia, validating disproven conclusions on Darwin’s theory, for example, the Hollywood of #MeToo, and at publishers and theatre companies, among various jobs throughout the country, adherent to the common wisdom, as opposed to critical, independent thinking.
“Interview” may remind of Chekhov’s short story, “Misery,” where the need to express thoughts, explain oneself, becomes so urgent that the central character begins confiding in a least likely figure. In Chekhov, this is a horse. In Havel’s short play, the character is Vanek, who is asked to inform on himself. Havel’s plays can have elements of absurdism—as they drink and munch peanuts–but he is not whimsical, and his writing can even sound like O’Neill’s realism. It is not lost on viewers, at Atlantic Stage 2, that the playwright does not advocate socialism, part of the current U.S. national debate (what other son of a builder do you know who does not advocate socialism and became president of his country?). Havel’s characters are bored and drunk, living futile lives, without work ethic and devoid of meaning: “What about me?” says the crass, tormented brewmaster (Michael Laurence), “I’m only good enough to be the shit on which your fucking principles can grow so you can be a goddamn hero. . . . You’re gonna show off . . . about the way you handled barrels in a brewery! But what about me? What can I go back to? Huh? What future have I got? What?” In the plays, Havel works full circle—climax and catharsis always lead back to stagnation, point zero; contradiction (Vanek, for example, is expected to make friends but not become “chummy”) and repetition. The characters can never progress psychologically, much less spiritually, which they appear to want to do, even if they can only make pretense to commercial mimicry.
In “Private View” a couple (Christopher Marshall and Emily Kron) looks toward the West for its cues on everyday life, such as food, art, sex, parenting, and purchase of consumer goods. The ideas have not grown organically out of their own culture, however, and the characters come across as earnest and empty fakes. Although the PTP/NYC season 2019 centers on four writers, known for their contributions to the subject of human rights, the chief among them are Havel and Tom Stoppard, both of Czech origin (although Stoppard, for much of his life, has been a British citizen). In “Private View,” the playwright most invoked, in Havel’s one act, is Ionesco, another Eastern European (in this case, from Romania, who settled in France). Students and readers can sometimes not understand why artists will speak figuratively–in symbol, for example (a rhinoceros) or metaphor (a cabaret to represent Nazi Germany—the sad news of the death of Hal Prince has just been announced), instead of being direct and exposing the thing itself. The explanation is usually, “Because it would be too painful”; another reason may that it is too dangerous. The Vanek plays may seem to talk around what’s really going in a Communist satellite fifty years ago, which had led PTP’s Co-Artistic Director Richard Romagnoli, in 1991, to add two further short plays in creating Havel: The Passion of Thought, by Pinter and Beckett. Yet, even so, you may be able to hear the screaming: “Life is hard and the world is divided. Our country has been written off by everybody, nobody’s going to help us, we’re in a very bad way, and it’s only going to get worse–and you can’t change it!”
Pinter’s sobering play, “The New World Order,” takes the audience into a torture room, where assumptions are dismantled, as a hooded man listens to his captor’s threats, spoken as banalities: “He hasn’t got any idea at all of what we’re going to do to him.” Although the assassins are about as bored as the brewery workers in “Interview”—in fact, one seems to maliciously echo the brewmaster’s monologue in Havel’s play: “Before he came here he was a big shot, he never stopped shooting his mouth off”—the leader explains that they are “keeping the world safe for democracy.” Beckett’s play, “Catastrophe,” actually written in honor of Havel—a work in which Pinter had also played as an actor–has especial bite and edge at PTP/NYC (the consummate direction for the Havel evening is by Richard Romagnoli). The play (here, the speaking roles are, nontraditionally, played by two women, Madeline Ciocci and Emily Ballou, whose forward-march pacing give the play a fascist edge)–seems to be questioning how the media distorts—and makes fashionable–human rights’ victims—Havel and Solzhenitsyn, for examples, and Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, from Belarus Free Theatre, and Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, to only begin a listing—who might say that what they were doing had nothing to do with becoming celebrities.
Although this review is being finished, at the end of July, during the second night of the Detroit Democratic debates, it should be mentioned that people can be fearful of socialism, despite its current fashionableness in the United States. One need only look at Sir Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet (known for its 15-minute rendition of Hamlet) and Cahoot’s Macbeth, probably a director’s nightmare (ably undertaken here by Cheryl Faraone), a complicated mosaic of different languages (Early Modern English, Modern English, as well as one the playwright has completely made up), utilizing a large cast. Additionally, as if a new society is being constructed during the plays, there are different settings and shifting set pieces, including huge, brutalist alphabet blocks, created for a Stalinist era (the design is by Mark Evancho; the three costume designers for the evenings are Glenna Ryer, Chris Romagnoli, and Rebecca Lafon; and Hallie Zieselman designed the lighting). Amit Prakash, visiting assistant professor, Middlebury College, has written, “In a society dominated by ideology, words are completely untethered from their meanings, shared human experience is always up for debate, and truth is as evasive as a hunted animal.”
Stoppard seems to see dislocation and language reconstruction as occurring due to changing ideology, and these plays appear to be giving a Stoppardian mirror image of Czechoslovakia, during the 1970s and 1980s (Ed Berman, who worked with the playwright at Almost Free Theatre in London, has also been consulted for Potomac Theater Project’s Stoppard plays). Although based on Shakespeare, the work is also influenced by Beckett, Havel, Wiggenstein, Pavel Kohout, detective novels, Ionesco, and the Theatre of the Absurd, to start. One setting for Cahoots Macbeth is a home, which can seem unusual, given that plays are being performed there, instead of at a theatre. Faraone writes, “forbidden to practice their art in public, one survival strategy (for artists, in Czechoslovakia) became performing Shakespeare in ‘apartment theatre.’” Such playing areas affirm what Kaliada has said, in interviews about stagings in another Eastern European country, Belarus (performances are given in apartments or at birthdays or weddings, to elude authorities). Havel discusses how to evade them in “The Protest”–by hiding in a department store: “You mingle with the crowd, then at the moment when they aren’t looking, you sneak into the bathroom and wait for about two hours. They become convinced you managed to sneak off through a side entrance and give up.”
What happens if you are caught? Stoppard’s detective/government inspector (Tara Giordano, in a trench coat) explains: “I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and played back at your trial.”
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© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved. Production photos: Stan Barouh.
Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity
The cast for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes David Barlow (PTP: No End of Blame, Victory, The Castle), Emily Kron (PTP: The Europeans, Sweet Tooth at Cherry Lane), Michael Laurence (Broadway: Talk Radio, Desire Under the Elms, NBC’s “Shades of Blue”), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Danielle Skraastad (Broadway: All My Sons, Hurricane Diane with Women’s Project & NYTW, The Architecture of Becoming with Women’s Project), Emily Ballou and Madeline Ciocci (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke).
The production team for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Glenna Ryer (Costume Design), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Devin Wein (Production Stage Manager).
The cast for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Matthew Ball (PTP: Pity In History, Pentecost), Denise Cormier (Broadway national tour The Graduate, Showtime’s “The Affair”), Tara Giordano (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Vinegar Tom, Serious Money), Christo Grabowski (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History, No End of Blame), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Peter B. Schmitz (PTP: Lovesong of the Electric Bear, Therese Raquin), Lucy Van Atta (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Serious Money, Spatter Pattern), Olivia Christie (PTP: Brecht on Brecht), Will Koch, Emily Ma, Katie Marshall, Madeleine Russell (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, The Possibilities), Lior Selve, Zach Varicchione and Connor Wright (PTP: Pity In History).
The production team for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Chris Romagnoli (Costume Design Dogg’s Hamlet), Rebecca LaFon (Costume Design Cahoot’s Macbeth), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).