BWW Reviews: Ambassador Theater's PROTEST Shows Havel's Enduring Lessons
For theatre artists like myself, the late 1970's and 1980's were a special time-and unique because the leader of a great resistance movement, opposed to the Soviet Union's brutal occupation of Eastern Europe, was one of us. The Czech playwright, actor and essayist Vaclav Havel spent those years of protest in and out of jail, forced to perform menial jobs, hounded by spies and wiretaps, flirting with failing health, and forbidden by the authorities to practice his craft. In spite of the tremendous obstacles he faced, Havel continued to write and smuggle to the West intensely personal plays that reflected on his experience as a dissident writer. In every play the underlying message was the same: a humble plea for a free and civil society.
Given the iron grip of Communism in that part of the world, the outcome of his campaign was completely unexpected: in 1989 the Soviets left Prague without so much as a single shot being fired. And our theatrical hero, Vaclav Havel, made a meteoric transition from political outcast to the first President of a free nation in a matter of months. As a leader of the so-called "Velvet Revolution," President Havel occupied a special place in the world spotlight as he continued his personal crusade for human decency, honesty and freedom.
This November marks the 24th anniversary of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe; but along with the celebration of Havel's success comes a nagging question: are his plays just a snapshot of their times? Or will they earn a place among the world's great dramas? Havel worried that his work might be discarded as mere artifacts, and hoped that they would survive and be "regarded simply as a portrayal of humankind or of the world."
We are now well into the second wave of Vaclav Havel productions, where his work is being re-examined from a variety of perspectives-experiments which, in and of themselves, are a testament to his staying power. Ambassador Theater's current production of "Protest" at the Mead Theater Lab marks the culmination of a year-long celebration here in Washington, D.C. of the playwright-President's legacy, as part of the "Mutual Inspirations Festival" coordinated with the Embassy of the Czech Republic. Under the direction of Gail Humphries-Mardirosian, herself no stranger to the Czech theatre scene, audiences can now witness a fascinating re-interpretation of what is perhaps Havel's deepest, most confessional work on life under an oppressive regime.
"Protest" is what you might call a "two-hander," a chamber piece for two men, Vanek and Stanek, who engage in an intense psychological debate about how to change the system they live under. The dissident Vanek (Havel's alter ego), fresh from his time in prison, is making the rounds once again with petitions against the regime and has come to solicit a signature from Stanek, a writer who has thrived under it. Stanek seems to welcome Vanek at first, and even asks him to write a petition to help get his future son-in-law out of jail. Vanek, ever ready to help, has already written the petition and gotten numerous dissident writers to sign on Stanek's behalf.
In spite of Vanek's good-will gesture, it becomes clear over the course of their visit that Stanek has serious doubts about joining Vanek's cause-even to save his own son-in-law. And in a brilliant monologue Stanek lays out the messy consequences, intended and unintended, of any writer who joins a dissident movement. Stanek, like so many of us, is more concerned with protecting his own shaky position than he is with anything else. At a moment when the visit turns especially dark, with hints that Stanek is actually a spy who is privy to information about Vanek's recent prison activities, we have a curious deus ex machina-a phone call from Stanek's son-in-law, confirming that he has been freed without any help from Vanek at all. We in the audience are left to contemplate the possibility that the whole confrontation, right down to the phone call, was a set-up designed to show Vanek that his crusade was pointless. But by the time we reach this surprising ending, we have been on a journey into the heart and soul of dissent, and we have to consider the challenges and contradictions that come with living in those times. Whose side are we on? And whose side would we be on, if we were faced with that kind of oppression?
Humphries-Mardiroisian, for this production, focuses on the fact that women as well as men are forced to choose sides in situations like these. Havel's characters could just as well have been prominent women, and with similar results. She creates a double-cast-two men and two women, as well as two sitting rooms on opposite sides of the small Mead Theater Center space. Depending on where you sit (the area is laid out like a cabaret, with nuts and Czech pilsner at your table) the experience can be disorienting at first, with a touch of whiplash as your eyes move quickly from one side to the other. We are accustomed to focusing on a single stage and a single set of characters, and for some audience members the idea of seeing the same scene play out in two places at once may seem a bit much. But the experience is a rewarding one, and a reminder-among many other things-that under a totalitarian regime every conversation, no matter how seemingly friendly, was carefully watched and as a result you were extremely self-conscious and careful of every word and gesture.
In one corner, Michael Crowley is a study in stoicism as Vanek while Ivan Zizek shows the firmness and barely-contained desperation of Stanek, the writer who knows he has become a success at the expense of his reputation among his peers. But whereas these male characters generally display a typical male reserve, their poker-faces stand in contrast to the more demonstrative, edgy performances on the distaff side of the arena. Sissel Bakken, as Vankova (Havel's part), bristles at the treatment she gets from her hostess, "Stankova," (Hanna Bondarewska), who becomes increasingly panicked and paranoid as their conversation proceeds. As Stankova, Bondarewksa makes explicit the tortures suffered by those who know what is right but who cannot or will not do it-the price any artist pays when they sell out to the authorities. Bakken meanwhile, is free to reveal the truly conflicted nature of this encounter, and from her we get the strong impression (not even hinted at among the boys) that this was not a free visitation, but was in fact somewhat coerced.
Jonathan Rushbrook has created two cozy sitting rooms, appropriately 'period' in their way, which mirror each other nicely, and Sigridur Johannesdottir is attuned to the professional look that was essential for both sides in this debate. Jerzy Sapieyevski has composed a fascinating series of musical motifs, to heighten the action.
The lobby and theatre walls at the Mead Theater are decorated with photos of Havel in his prime, at his country home, rehearsing and performing his plays with fellow dissidents; his wife Olga features prominently as well. When you go to see the play, be sure to give yourself time to look at these beautiful portraits of a young man (a huge fan of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed) who dresses casually but whose seriousness of purpose inspired us all.
This production argues forcefully for theatres in Washington (and elsewhere) to continue to plumb the depths of Havel's work. And although a bit confusing the strategy of doubling of the cast enables us to see more clearly the inner conflicts of the characters Havel treats so compassionately.
May we never live in times where plays like this become a necessity; but may we always live in times when Havel's plays have an essential role in our ongoing examination of the human condition.
"Protest" runs November 19-December 15 (except for Thanksgiving week, November 27-30) at the Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW, Washington DC. Showtimes are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 PM, with Matinee performances Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM. For tickets to to: www.aticc.org/home/box-office.
Pictured: Sissel Bakken as "Vankova." Photo by George Gordon.