BWW Review: THE HAVEL PROJECT: VANĚK UNLEASHED & PROTEST at Alliance For New Music-Theatre
Before he became the last president of Czechoslovakia - and the first president of the Czech Republic -- the famous Eastern European freedom fighter Václav Havel was a playwright. His works before the revolution spoke to issues arising from Soviet rule, as did the plays that followed it.
It's fitting that one of those works, "Protest," is being revived by the Alliance for New Music-Theatre, in conjunction with the Embassy of the Czech Republic's Mutual Inspirations Festival, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that transformed that country.
That it is being performed in the Dupont Underground would make Havel smile, he being the leading light of his own underground.
"Protest," written in 1978, is a two-hander about a recently imprisoned activist and artist - a thinly disguised version of Havel himself in the recurring everyman character he used in several plays, Ferdinand Vaněk, who has come to the home of a prosperous colleague to discuss how they might help one another - his friend Staněk wants help in releasing a future son-in-law; Vaněk wants a signature on a protest petition. The host is somewhat flustered; he thinks his friend was followed. He doesn't want to get so deep in the resistance that he'd end up in trouble and lose his job in state TV.
It's a paranoid dance that of course plays well in Washington, D.C., scarcely a Metro stop from the White House during an impeachment inquiry. And it's one that, if performed at all in its day, had to either be done abroad (Havel's works were banned in his home country in 1968), or in a series of private invitation-only "apartment performances" - which probably worked well with this piece, since it's also set in a drawing room.
Staging the work in the abandoned streetcar turnaround beneath bustling Dupont Circle works perfectly on some levels, simply by forcing the work underground and out of the eye of the passerby. You practically need a password to get into the one entrance and have to travel another quarter mile around a curving tunnel to the performance. The occasional siren sounds invading from above only enhances the feel of a police state.
But there are drawbacks to a tunnel where the performance space is wide but impossibly shallow - there's only room for two rows of chairs, for one thing. What might have been a lavish living room can only be suggested by a couple of pieces of furniture and the projection of a mantel and painting (which disappears halfway through the piece). But more than anything, there is an echo down there.
Sometimes it's used for effect, as when David Millstone, portraying the rattled host Staněk, bellows down the corridor.
But there's an echo to everything, including every mild utterance by Drew Valins' meek Vaněk. The lighting is necessarily harsh, and though there is a clever use of the part of the turnaround that's been walled off with a door, there's no getting around the fact you're in an abandoned transit corridor.
Still, the chill and occasional humor of Havel's prose comes through in the play as directed by Susan Galbraith, with the host continually asking if his guest wants a peanut, or insisting that he doff his workboots for a pair of slippers (which, metaphorically, Staněk had done long before).
It's a sharp piece of political writing as resonating for the current time as it is for the anniversary being marked.
As part of a big event called "The Havel Project," the succinct one-act is being presented alongside the revival of an longer original work, "Vaněk Unleashed," which looks at the time Havel spent in jail based on the writings to his wife.
Again, Valins plays the role, in the same boots. This time he has to sing from his cell, but the vocal power rises through some real pros on the outside -- Michelle Eugene as his wife, Meghan McCall as a soprano in a variety of roles and Peter Boyer, as a drunk and a prison guard. Here the cavernous echo seems to enhance their voices, or at least theirs' has a quality that could cut through it.
While the rhymes in the lyrics by Galbraith and Maurice Saylor are often clever and adhere to the facts of Pavel's struggle, the musical choice in general seemed off.
Composer Saylor relies on a kind of Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera style, mixed with early Tin Pan alley flourishes and the kind of music that accompanies silent slapstick (all of it sounding a bit more tinny because it was prerecorded, and because of the tunnel).
Pavel's world was indeed animated by the music that inspired him, but in his case, it was almost entirely the experimental rock 'n' roll of Lou Reed, Frank Zappa and Czechoslovakia's own Plastic People of the Universe. The Velvet Revolution may not have been named directly after the Velvet Underground, but it could have been.
At the time, just a month after the Berlin Wall fell, it seemed like the first revolution that was actually made possible in part by the rebelliousness and solidarity of rock 'n' roll, an exhilarating notion wholly ignored by the production.
On the other hand, the idea of drums, guitars and amps amid the echoes of the Dupont Underground would have made it ear-splittingly prohibitive.
There are other aspects to the event worth noting, including a colorful indoor mural by Czech graffiti artist Jan Kalab saluting the anniversary, and the exhibition of the World Press Photo Exhibition that continues through Dec. 8.
I was lucky enough to attend the one night there was a third component to the evening as well - a glimpse at part of an upcoming documentary on Havel, from the documentarian Petr Jančárek, who was in attendance to answer questions.
In the film, it was poignant to see Havel very involved in the planning of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Velvet Revolution, to the point where he was on his hands and knees with director Milos Forman trying to find a CD of music from a celebratory rock concert.
That Havel is not around for the 30th anniversary (he died in 2011 at 75) makes it all the more important that organizations like the Alliance for New Music-Theatre go out of their way to remember.
Running time: About two hours, one intermission.
Photo credit: David Millstone and Drew Valins in "Protest." Photo by Michael Yeshio Photography.
The Havel Project: Vaněk Unleashed: An Absurd Musical Fantasy and Protest continue at the Dupont Underground, 19 Dupont Circle, NW, through Nov. 17. Tickets online.