Rocco George as Svejk. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Formative antiwar story is a hilariously subversive depiction of the idiocy of war and the men who wage it

February 1 to 18, 2024
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City, produced in cooperation with GOH Productions
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM
$18 gen. adm., $15 students, seniors and veterans.
Runs :90

From February 1 to 18, Theater for the New City (TNC) will present Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) in the world’s first puppet theater adaptation of “The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the First World War,” a hilarious 1921 antiwar novel by Jaroslav Hašek, a countryman, contemporary and peer of Franz Kafka. The book is a timeless satire about a good-humored, simple-minded man, overly enthusiastic to serve. Adapted and directed by Vít Horejš, it is an innovative re-interpretation of the classic, combining live performers with puppets.

In the book, Švejk [pronounced “Shvayk”], a professional dog thief and certified dimwit, stumbles through the WWI military machine of the Austria-Hungary, whose Czech soldiers are fighting in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of an empire to which they have no loyalty. A series of absurdly comic episodes explore the pointlessness and futility of military discipline and of conflict in general, defining the idiocy of war and the men who wage it, not just in the Great War but in all wars; not just the idiocy of war but idiocy itself. The book was inspirational to Joseph Heller (“Catch 22”), the creators of M*A*S*H, and Bertold Brecht, among many.

Good-natured and garrulous, Švejk becomes the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s most loyal Czech soldier when he is called up after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – although his bumbling attempts to get to the front serve only to prevent him from reaching it. Playing cards, getting drunk and becoming a general nuisance, the resourceful halfwit uses all his natural cunning and genial subterfuge to deal with the doctors, police, clergy and officers who badger him towards battle. A story of a ‘little man’ caught in a vast bureaucratic machine, the book combines dazzling wordplay and piercing satire to create a hilariously subversive depiction of the futility of war.

(L) Gage Morgan as LIEUTENANT LUKÁŠ, (R) Rocco George as COLONEL FRIEDRICH KRAUS VON ZILLERGUT. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The production will employ set and art nouveau-influenced costumes by Theresa Linnihan and Czech puppets of all sizes from the collection of Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. All eight actors will take turns in the part of Svejk as well as playing other characters. The actor/puppeteers are Michelle Beshaw, Deborah Beshaw-Farrell, Vít Horejš, Theresa Linnihan, Sammy Rivas, Rocco George, Gage Morgan and Ben Watts. Lighting is by Eric Norbury. Production Stage Manager is Rebecca Werner. GOH Productions producer is Bonnie Sue Stein.

Vít Horejš (adaptation, director, performer) is an émigré from Prague. He founded Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) in 1990, utilizing century-old Czech puppets which he found in the attic of Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. His trademark is using puppets of many sizes, from six-inch toy marionettes to twelve-foot rod puppets which double as scenery. During the pandemic Horejš organized, with the Czechoslovak Academy of Arts & Sciences, an online reading of Hašek’s classic book, finding that it’s the most-translated book in the Czech language. He was already a fan of the 1956 film by Karel Steklý and the 2018 film by Christine Edzard and suspected there was possible popularity on these shores for the story. The reading commemorated the 100th anniversary of the book’s publication. Horejš notes that in the communist period, the Czech army was frequently afraid of being “Shvayked,” i.e. stymied by soldiers playing dumb. It’s a form of resistance now seen in the Russian army in Ukraine.

TNC has presented CAMT in nine productions. “The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and about Their Untymelie End while Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining New York” explored the Rosenberg trial with a manipulated set but few puppets. Anita Gates wrote in the New York Times, “Vít Horejš has written and directed a first-rate, thoroughly original production and made it look effortless. The cast gives charged, cohesive performances, and the staging is expert.” “Revolution!?” was a collaboration with three performers from Bohemia and Moravia, examining revolutions throughout the history of mankind as a backdrop for the extraordinary peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia. “Mr. M” (2011) was the first American stage adaptation of “Mr. Theodore Mundstock” by Ladislav Fuks, a postwar Czech writer of psychological fiction. The production, which continued at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, starred the Grand Dame of Yiddish music scene Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011) in her last major public appearance. In 2013, puppets and live performers enacted an enigmatic tale of early World War II in “King Executioner,” written and directed by Vít Horejš, loosely based on “When you are a King, You will be an Executioner” (1968) by the Polish magical realist novelist Tadeusz Nowak (1930-1991). In 2015, the company performed “The Magic Garden, or, The Princess Who Grew Antlers,” an ensemble creation that was cheerfully assembled from Czech fairy tales in which antlers appear. In 2018, the company introduced “Three Golden Hairs of Grandfather Wisdom” and “The Winter Tales,” two plays based on Czech fairy tales. In 2019, the company reimagined its breakthrough production, “Johannes Dokchtor Faust, a Petrifying Puppet Comedye,” at TNC, updating it to the topsy-turvy political climate of the year. In 2020 and 2021, TNC presented the troupe in “A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa (Happy Ramadan)” live and streaming.

Ensemble: Photo: Jonathan Slaff.

Vít Horejš writes, “The troupe is excited to return to Crystal Field’s theater, a venue which embraces new work and enables performances in innovative styles, like this adaptation, to reach receptive audiences at affordable prices.”

Czechoslovak American Marionette Theatre is a program of GOH Productions, a nonprofit organization, and receives public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Additional support comes from Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, Materials for the Arts and BrouCzech Beer.

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