By Bob Shuman
The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) has just finished dates at Theater for the New City (from February 1-18) with The Good Soldier Švejk (rhyme that last name with Blake: Schvake). The company is expert with the wires and strings of their “dummies,” historic creations, brought from the Old World (the adaptation and direction are by Vit Horejs, who also is an actor; he’s both inside and outside the action). Here, puppeteers do more than feed lines for jokes or become invisible controllers; the puppets are actually stepping stones to accomplished, freewheeling, and daring performance. The eight thespians, who tell the story, may be in a rehearsal, with their props, within reach—we do know that contrary to the way Eddie Izzard recently inhabited all twenty-three characters in Hamlet, they are all playing one hapless soldier
Perhaps this can be done because Švejk is not of royal lineage and is not trying to stand out (he knows he’s cannon fodder). He is amorphous, an everyman or every person—he’s rubbery, proletariat, and actors can make him their own. In one sense, the evening asks us to watch dueling stage work—and we are to decide who should play the character in performance.
The story, based on a favorite 1921 Czech novel, by Jaraslav Hašek, which was originally written in serialization for newspapers, like works by Dickens were, for example. Think of the character also as a kind of plebeian Don Quixote, on picaresque adventures). As does the gallant, senile would-be knight, also, Švejk has adventures enough for years of dipping into and reading (a current English edition is 752 pages, with classic illustrations by Josef Lada). There is an acute difference, though, between the undistinguished mass man (he is not too smart, but dumb enough to stay alive, sometimes by stealing dogs to resell) and Don Quixote and many on a list of sentimentalized creations by Charles Dickens. The distinction is that Švejk is not sentimental in any way; he is an amoral grunt and only knows about surviving in the present (actually, a lying, remorseless character from a Milan Kundera novel may come to mind, as a comparison, where lying is accepted and needed). Švejk does not have great higher aspirations and is not dreaming any impossible dreams; his leitmotif is that he may be dead by five o’clock. He is a dummy who has learned that the only way he can survive is by appeasement—which is why, when we meet him in his novel, and here, he confesses to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in an area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire he has never been to, in an incident he knows virtually nothing about.
Adventures with Švejk may have to do with his dognapping and cleaning lady, the police, tavern, and army, Czech common people, and rule-makers and enforcers, even if they aren’t very good at their jobs. The character is the ultimate marginalized untermensch, living in a puppet world where a mop can become a dog; a white cape may become a snowstorm; images of coffins peer out of the set design, and, for the promise of a polka, a miniature stein of beer is not far away. Perhaps the evening could benefit from clearer work with plot, but it may be enough that this is a puppet play for the people, unruly, sometimes raucous, crass, and vital—its uncontainability is part of the experience. Tomorrow a new outrageousness will be pinpointed and need to be performed, spread out all over the floor.
The actors: Michelle Beshaw, Deborah Beshaw-Farrell, Theresa Linnihan, Sammy Rivas, Rocco George and Gage Morgan
Production Design by Theresa Linnihan
Press: Jonathan Slaff
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