Czech Marionettes to Bring THE LIFE & TIMES OF LEE HARVEY OSWALD to La MaMa
In the era of alternative truth, it is timely to revisit three 1960s national traumas which are shrouded in dense cobwebs of multiple conspiracy theories: the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King.
To elucidate them with puppet theater wisdom, Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre revisits these tragedies in "The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald," conceived, written and directed by Vit Horejs.
The piece represents the main protagonists as a peculiar cross between Greek tragic figures and stock characters from traditional puppet murder mysteries.
The Kennedy brothers and King, portrayed by puppets, are dramatized as inexorably approaching the Grassy Knoll through their lives, guided by fate, as marionettes are pulled by their strings. A chorus of all-American cheerleaders, FBI, KGB and talent agents warn them in vain to avoid the path of destruction. A score of '60s hits, military anthems and sound effects, played on Wurlitzer organ and percussion, comments on the action and guides the stringed players through their unavoidable life changing acts.
The story is acted out on the Grassy Knoll with the Book Depository in the background. On this location, the chorus begins recounting the story while moving and transforming the mobile set from the Book Depository into Hyannis Park, the White House, Moscow, Havana, Offices of the anti-Castro League in Miami, Dallas International Airport, the Viaduct, and other renowned locales. A cast of over 50 eight-inch marionettes by Milos Kasal, and a dozen ventriloquist dummies for the chorus by Václav Krcál, interact with nine performer/puppeteers.
The Oswald puppet by Theresa Linnihan is based on the iconic "hunter of fascists" photo which Lee's Russian wife, Marina took in their back yard -- Oswald holding a rifle and a handgun (later used in Dallas slayings of JFK and Officer Tippit). The production uses the puppet characters of the traditional Czech Marionette repertory, for example, the JFK puppet is a knight in shining armor and Jackie is a noblewoman. Marina Oswald is a young village woman, Rose Kennedy a queen, Joseph Kennedy a king and Castro is depicted as a mountain spirit with a long flowing beard. Robert Kennedy is a musketeer, LBJ a cook, John Connelly is a cowboy and Hansel & Gretel portray various children.
In the chorus, there are a dozen frightening dummies created by Václav Krcál for this production, reminiscent of the scary characters in the Pantheon of American Ventriloquism: Charley McCarthy, Danny O'Day, Jerry Mahoney and Howdy Doody, to name a few. (Krcál's Haman puppet was a highlight of this troupe's production, "The Historye of Queen Esther, of King Ahasverus & of the Haughty Haman," performed at West Side Y's Marjorie Dean Theatre.)
The production will have a residency at Theatre Kapow of Manchester, New Hampshire (www.tkapow.com). The play will preview there October 25 and 26 prior to coming to La MaMa. The residency and previews will be co-directed by Matt Cahoon, Artistic Director of Theatre Kapow. (Stockbridge Theatre, 44 N. Main Street, Derry, NH 03038. Tickets: theatrekapow.ticketleap.com/lee-harvey-oswald.)
The performance is designed by Michelle Beshaw with "cranky" animation art by David Michael Friend, and features Deborah Beshaw, Michelle Beshaw, Vít Horejš, Sarah Lafferty, Valois Mickens, Jon L Peacock, Jeffrey Roth and Ben Watts.
Vit Horejs, an emigré from Prague, founded Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) in 1990, utilizing century-old Czech puppets which he found at 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. CAMT is dedicated to preserving and presenting traditional and not-so-traditional puppetry.
At La MaMa Theatre, where the company is in residence, it has performed "The Little Rivermaid Rusalka" (1999), "Johannes Dokchtor Faust" (2000), "The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Joan of France" (2001), "Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery" (2003), "The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald" (2004), "Once There Was a Village" (2007), an ethno-opera with puppets, found objects and music by Frank London of The Klezmatics; "Twelfth Night (or What You Will)" (2009) and the troupe's most successful work, "Golem" (1997, 1998 Henson International Puppetry Festival, and 2011), which also had a score by Frank London. Its last premiere there was "The Republic, or My Dinner with Socrates" (2013). The company revived its "A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa" there in 2014. Its last production there was "The New World Symphony: Dvorák in America" in 2016.
Theater for the New City has presented the company in seven 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" (2008) explored the Rosenberg trial with a manipulated set but few puppets. Anita Gates wrote in the New York Times, "Vit 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!?" (2010) was a collaboration with three performers from Prague, 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. In 2013, puppets and live performers enacted an enigmatic tale of early World War II in "King Executioner," written and directed by Vit Horejs, 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. Last season, the company debuted "Three Golden Hairs of Grandfather Wisdom" and "The Winter Tales," two plays based on a compendium of Czech fairy tales.
Productions in other venues have ranged from Czech classics to Shakespeare to fairy tales. "Johannes Dokchtor Faust" premiered in its first season (1990) and was re-staged in 1994 as part of NADA's Obie Award-winning "Faust Festival" in Soho. It was revived at La MaMa in 2000 and at Manhattan's Bohemian Hall in 2007. "Hamlet" debuted at the Vineyard Theater in 1995, was performed at outdoor venues in NY, and toured to the 2004 Prague Summer Shakespeare Festival at Prague Castle. It was revived on Jane's Carousel in DUMBO, Brooklyn in 2007. "The Bass Saxophone," a WWII fantasy with music based on a story by Czech-Canadian writer Josef Skvorecky, played 11 weeks at the Grand Army Plaza Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch in Brooklyn during the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2006. CAMT's productions for young audiences include "A Christmas Carol--OY! Hanukkah--Merry Kwanzaa," "The Historye of Queen Esther, of King Ahasverus & of the Haughty Haman," "Kacha and the Devil," "The White Doe - Or The Piteous Trybulations of the Sufferyng Countess Jenovefa," "Snehurka, The Snow Maiden" and "Twelve Iron Sandals."
CAMT has also appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, the Smithsonian Institution, The World Trade Center, the Antonin Dvorák Festival in Spillville, Iowa, the 2012 inauguration of The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis, the Lowell Folk Arts Festival in Massachusetts and in international festivals in Poland, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea and the Czech Republic.
An integral part of New York City's cultural landscape, La MaMa has a worldwide reputation for producing daring work in theater, dance, performance art, and music that defies form and transcends boundaries of language, race, and culture. Founded in 1961 by theater pioneer and legend Ellen Stewart, La MaMa is a global organization with creative partners and dedicated audiences around the world. La MaMa presents an average of 60-70 productions annually, most of which are world premieres. To date, over 3,500 productions have been presented at La MaMa with artists from more than 70 nations. Honored with more than 30 OBIE Awards and dozens of Drama Desk and Bessie Awards, La MaMa's programming is culturally diverse and cross-disciplinary, drawing audiences from all walks of life. For the fourth consecutive year, La MaMa is offering its 10@$10 program whereby ten tickets are made available for every performance in every theater in advance for only $10.
Pictured: Lee Harvey Oswald puppet. Photo by David Michael Friend.