Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Memo from Václav Havel

Lost in Havel's untranslatable idiom.
Václav Havel, who died only a little over a year ago, was one of the few playwrights who could claim to have had a larger role on the political stage than the dramatic one.

Both the final president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, Havel, a long-time dissident and intellectual voice behind the Iron Curtain, was a major player in lifting that particular shroud, and eventually led the nascent Czech Republic through a decade of relative stability and prosperity.

But he was also the author of more than 20 plays,  of which The Memorandum (presented by Flat Earth Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through last weekend) is one of the best known.

Yet we've seen few of these texts in local performance.  And alas, The Memorandum gave one some idea as to why.  Written just before the famous Prague Spring, the script is a smart, if heavy-handed, application of absurdist techniques (mostly on loan from Ionesco) to a satire of an unnamed Eastern bloc bureaucracy.  But if The Memorandum has any historic staying power, it will not be for the playwright's sketch of a peculiarly Havel-like hero, nor for his parody of "scientific" social policy, but rather for the scrappily surreal low comedy of his game corporate survivors.  The lower ranks of Havel's bureaucracy (here simply called "the organization") are filled with earthy types bent on doing as little as possible to get by, while hopefully scoring some milk or cigarettes on the side, at the local market (where, one gets the impression, real social policy is inevitably set).

And you can't blame them for their alienation once you get a load of the organization's latest innovation, "Ptydepe" (pronounced "puh-tee-de-pay") a new language willed into existence to distinguish every word to the maximum extent possible.  Ptydepe is progressive, it's scientific - and, of course, it leads to unpronounceable portmanteau words which no one can remember.  Few can master even the basics of Ptydepe, and no one can converse in it, but that's okay, because obscurantism is really its raison d'être; indeed, the circular process for translating its memos means their content remains unknown; hence the underlings who dreamt it up manage to climb (briefly) to the top of the org chart through sheer intimidation.

You perceive, of course, that such mindless "innovation" is not merely the purview of the left; the essential situation of The Memorandum has played out to some degree in every organization everywhere.  What's more, the surreal details of Havel's social vision often ring hilariously true: you can tell the relative importance of his corporate poo-bahs, for instance, by the size of their fire extinguishers (!), and there's a not-so-secret "staff watcher" who spends his days sneaking around in crawlspaces, spying on people through cracks and chinks.

But if his premise is inspired, Havel's exposition nevertheless tends to grind, and he doesn't seem to realize that a farce (which is basically what he's writing) should accelerate as it proceeds.  Instead, once  the playwright has nailed one particular point, he tends to nail it again and again - until the play feels stuck in a satiric rut.

Fleet timing and a crack cast could save The Memorandum from its naïve dramaturgy, I think; but alas, the Flat Earth performances, under the direction of Victoria Rose Townsend, were sometimes naïve, too, and far too broadly scaled - although most of these actors clearly had some comic chops.  Unfortunately the one player without much comic mojo was in the lead - and he didn't really manage the romantic side of the role, either (nor its paeans to Havel's humanism).  Nor was his antagonist, the weasely deputy who implements Ptydepe, given much in the way of distinguishing feature; only further down the totem pole did the acting liven up, and the production occasionally kick up its heels.  Marty Seeger Mason made an intriguingly self-aware bimbette of her dreamy secretary Hana, and Emily Hecht expertly nailed the annoying goody-two-shoes who got the hang of Ptydepe, even as young Kevin E. Parise cut an appropriately daffy profile as the nutty professor who could translate it.  Meanwhile newcomers Dori Levit and Kevin Kordis made a positive first impression in less antic roles.

Indeed, Flat Earth seemed quite in love with Ptydepe - as you might expect of a crowd of nice, brainy kids like these - the kind who in years gone by would have memorized Monty Python or Firesign Theatre records in their entirety.  If only earnest smarts were all you needed to cover the gaps in Havel's script, they'd all have been in comic clover. As it is, however, I was still grateful to this intrepid troupe for bringing something of Havel's dramatic legacy to light.


  1. Don't you also think that the reason we so little of Havel's work in Boston (and perhaps in America) is precisely because Havel's humanism flies in the face of the way many theatre companies see themselves, and in the ideology sold by many academic theatre departments about how plays are supposed to be made?

  2. Perhaps. But I was struck by the technical clumsiness of The Memorandum, which felt highly exposed once staged outside the resonance of its original time and place. And to be honest, while Havel's "humanism" sound valiant (and it IS valiant), he doesn't really put it to the test, does he. It would have been very intriguing, for instance, to see exactly what was going on out in that market, which seemed to be the object of much intrigue (often communicated through blatant semaphore). In short, when human beings are, indeed, free of ideology (to some degree, at least), is what comes out of them so very admirable? Havel doesn't dare peek behind that curtain.