BWW Reviews: Kafkaesque THE MEMORANDUM Examines Humanity Stuck in the Corporate World
THE MEMORANDUM, a 1965 play by Vaclav Havel, was first produced in America in 1968 and won the Obie Award, which established Havel's reputation in the United States. He was also a famed political dissident and became the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003) in the post-Communist era. At the time of his death, he was Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. The play is a dark comedy that parodies bureaucracy and conformity.
Certainly anyone who has worked in a corporation, and especially those who are so hooked into the online world via Twitter, will identify with the characters and situations in the play. However, it is very "talky" and not that easy to understand in many parts due to Havel's political ramblings. But even though parts of it may go over your head, the clear message that corporations zap individuality comes through loud and clear.
Jen Bloom directs this new production for Santa Monica Rep at the Miles Memorial Playhouse with attention to the fact pacing required. Ms. Bloom's cast includes, in alphabetical order, Yael Berkovich, Bill Charlton, Ewan Chung, Tania Getty, Sara Mayer, Burl Moseley, Bart Petty and Barbara Urich.
Bringing the action up close and personal is the multimedia theater-in-the-round set designed by Sean T. Cawelti, with imaginative lighting designed by Mike Stone. With a stage designed to represent three offices, along with the main stage used as an exit into the larger corporate environment, the action moves quickly from scene to scene, from one more complicated situation to another.
There is large screen on which all the corporate tweets each worker is constantly reading on their handheld monitor (small plastic rectangles, actually, but very effective in representing today's cell phone and tablet world). Strange messages such as limes are available or it's milk break time enthusiastically give the employees a chance to escape from their desks for precious moments.
This 1965 comedy about living in the bureaucratic hell of surveillance culture is, unfortunately, still very timely. Josef Gross (Bart Petty, the perfect and very likable Everyman) is Managing Director of a Dubious Bureaucracy. When he receives and unintelligible memorandum, he discovers that the organization has imposed a new corporate language in which he has yet to be indoctrinated. I am not quite sure why, but Mr. Gross always carries a fire extinguisher around as a symbol of his authority. There are many such Kafkaesque elements in the play thanks to Properties by Ann Marie Tullo and Costume Designer Maddie Keller who focuses on orange and lime green in the most interesting of ways.
Along with the new language, Ptydepe (puh-TIE-duh-pee), a new set of rules and a sinister surveillance system ensure worker compliance. Gross soon finds himself deposed from his position of power, struggling to maintain his very survival within the company. His only ally is a secretary, Maria (the ever-fetching Sara Mayer), a wide-eyed idealist who yearns for him. Will they be able to defeat the oppressive new order and set things right?
Not if their evil corporate nemesis Jan Ballas (Barbara Urich), has anything to do with it. This smiling and upbeat vulture insists her actions are all for the good of the organization, but in truth Ballas is only thinking of how she can move up the corporate ladder by not taking blame for her own bad decisions. Unfortunately there is a person of this type in most corporations with so much seniority and subversive instincts that you can't help but laugh at her - until she again succeeds to work her way into a place of power.
The office workers caught up in the outrageously ridiculous Ptydepe corporate culture are translators Otto Stroll (Bill Charlton) and Alex Savant (Burl Moseley), Executive Assistant Hans (Ewan Chung), star Ptydepe student Thumb (David Evan Stolworthy), Chairman of nothing but partying Helena (Tania Getty), and the comically silent but all-knowing assistant Lear (Yael Berkovich).
But the most comical of the characters is Ms. Pillar (also Yael Berkovich) the employee who must teach Ptydepe classes to the rest of the staff. Her frustration in trying to teach a precise language full of imperfections reminded me of trying to teach synonyms and homophones to non-native English speaking elementary students.
Adding to the subversive atmosphere is the under-the floor Office Watcher who keeps tabs on everyone through a chink in the wall. Big Brother is alive and well in Havel's corporate world. Perhaps your most powerful defense against security culture and mindless bureaucracy may be to laugh at them, or in this case, realize that the only way an individual can survive is to escape.
THE MEMORANDUM by Vaclav Havel, translated by Vera Blackwell, directed by Jen Bloom, produced by Santa Monica Repertory Theater at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., in Santa Monica, CA 90403. Santa Monica Rep Artistic Director is Eric Bloom. Performance runs through April 20 on Fridays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m.
ADMISSION: General $30. Seniors (60+) and students with I.D., $20. RESERVATIONS: (213) 268-1454. ONLINE TICKETING: www.santamonicarep.org
PARKING INFO: Limited metered parking available surrounding the park. (2 hour maximum, 9-6pm, $1.00 per hour, accepts credit cards - FREE Sundays and after 6PM at meters). Do not park in the permit-only parking areas on the other side of the street.
Free event parking is available at the pink granite-faced subterranean garage serving the 808 Wilshire Bldg, vehicle entry on Lincoln. Important: Do not take the automatic machine printed ticket - instead mention "I'm going to Miles Playhouse" to the attendant on entry. After mentioning "Miles Playhouse" to the attendant, be sure to receive the special validated ticket. After the event, use the ticket to swipe the card reader to the right of the pedestrian entrance at 808 Wilshire. Take the elevator down to the parking area. The pressure of your vehicle at the exit will lift the gate.
Photo Credit: Mitch Goldstrom.