Review: Don't Miss Your Chance to Czech Out "Havel: The Passion of Thought"

Havel: The Passion of Thought

Works written by Harold Pinter, Václav Havel, and Samuel Beckett

Directed by Richard Romagnoli

Presented by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2

330 W. 16th St., Manhattan, NYC

July 9-August 4, 2019

Madeleine Ciocci, David Barlow, and Emily Ballou. Photo credit: Stan Barouh
Authoritarianism is having something of a global renaissance these days. That dispiriting fact makes this a fitting time for PTP/NYC's staging of a trio of works by Václav Havel (1936-2011). Havel was a Czech dissident, writer, and repeated political prisoner during communist rule in his native country, and, after 1989's demonstration-fueled Velvet Revolution brought an end to the totalitarian government, Havel served as the final President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). With Havel: The Passion of Thought, PTP (Potomac Theatre Project, associated with Vermont's Middlebury College) fruitfully frames three of Havel's four "Vaněk plays" (the fourth, Dozens of Cousins, was written far after the fall of communism, close to the end of Havel's life) with other short works by two further titans of twentieth-century theater, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. Vaněk, a stand-in for the author, became a hugely significant figure, even being appearing in other playwrights' work, and this bookending by Pinter and Beckett functions, as Prof. Amit Prakash puts it in the production's program, to "extend the protagonist's journey." Extending this intertextual network further, PTP/NYC is playing Havel: The Passion of Thought in repertory with Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (read our review here), by Tom Stoppard, whose family fled Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis when he was a toddler and whose Cahoot's Macbeth is dedicated to Czech writer Pavel Kohout, a fellow member of political group Charter 77 (1976-1992) with Havel.

The plays brought together in Havel: The Passion of Thought comprise an examination of how individuals navigate oppression that is often as humorous as it is incisive. This mixture is evident almost immediately, as Pinter's brief play The New World Order opens the production. In it, two men, Desmond (Christopher Marshall) and Lionel (Michael Laurence), discuss the impending interrogation, with torture threateningly suggested, of a third, unnamed man (David Barlow, who also plays Vaněk in the Havel plays), bound to a chair and with a cloth bag over his head. The interrogators here are expertly played by Marshall and Laurence as a kind of sinister double act. Ironically, and appropriately for the themes of the production, they at one point, standing over the silenced man, discuss the importance of language (and, by extension, expression). Climactically, Lionel reveals that his work makes him feel pure, and Desmond agrees that they are "keeping the world clean" for the governmental system that he pointedly names.

Michael Laurence & David Barlow. Photo credit: Stan Barouh 
A similar notion of purity arises in the course of Interview, the next play in the sequence and the first by Havel. As it begins, a brewmaster (Laurence) sleeps at his desk amidst crates of bottled beer. He is awakened by the arrival of Vaněk (Barlow), who has been working in the brewery rolling barrels (where, we hear, his friend Kohout has been to see him). In contrast to the brewmaster's disheveled hair and clothing, unselfconsciously demonstrative demeanor, and remarkable speed and volume of beer consumption, the soft-spoken, beer-averse writer Vaněk comes across as (literally) buttoned-up. While the brewmaster attempts to force ever more beer on Vaněk—once, hilariously, pouring a drink right through Vaněk's fingers as he covers his stein—he works his way around to his reason for summoning Vaněk: to offer him a cushier position, complete with an office. The brewmaster observes regarding the theater that there is a catch in everything, however, and it slowly becomes clear that he wants something in return. As he explains and argues for his request, we see how not only official but personal networks apply pressure to aid in repression, and the brewmaster criticizes what he characterizes, in an interesting echo of the previous play's invocation of purity and cleanliness, as Vaněk's staying "clean" in sticking to his principles. Laurence keeps this inebriated, working-class man who is informing on his employees sympathetic, which is perhaps the problem, as we see to a lesser degree in the third Havel play; and he repeats his opening position at the desk as the play concludes on the Beckettian note of seeming to start the same proceedings all over again.

Christopher Marshall, David Barlow, Emily Kron. Photo credit: Stan Barouh 
The next play, Private View, takes us from Vaněk's work life to his private life and from a netting-bedecked brewery office to a stylish 1970s living room, all black and white and metal and glass. Vaněk is visiting a couple, Michael (Marshall) and Vera (Emily Kron), who are eager to show off their new décor and their hosting and parenting skills to the man whom they repeatedly call their best friend. They have transformed a variety of objects into ornamental commodities, including some that would have been considered sacred, and Michael eventually displays Vera to Vaněk as one more of these commodities. The couple also competitively criticize Vaněk's life, for his own good, of course, including explaining to the childless dissident activist that raising a child is the only thing in life that has meaning. Private View is the most purely and intensely comic of the plays, and it escalates in some delightfully absurd ways, culminating in an almost orgasmic explosion that is very funny and very well staged. During this escalation, the couple assert that one can't change anything and that Vaněk should forget about people like Kohout. This argument could be seen as a less sympathetic cousin to part of the brewmaster's reasoning in Interview, and the bit of a reboot at the end of this play also recalls its predecessor. Marshall and Kron are terrific, with Kron progressively offering glimpses beneath Vera's facade and making the most of her character's outsized crescendo, and Barlow, as in Interview, effectively embodies Vaněk as a quietly bemused but assured straight-man. It is extremely easy to picture today's Michael and Vera curating their passive-aggressive Instagram account, and their calling Vaněk a "political snob" is equally easy to imagine among those who remain steadfastly disengaged from politics and the ominous developments that surround them.

Danielle Skraastad & David Barlow. Photo credit: Stan Barouh 
Whether or how to engage politically is at issue in all three of Havel's plays presented here, but it takes center stage, so to speak, in the third, Protest. In Protest, Vaněk visits the home of Ms. Stanekova (Danielle Skraastad), who works in film and TV and gardens in her free time. She admits that she might brag about her gardening and gives Vaněk advice about being followed in ways that bring to mind Michael and Vera, and amidst her dark wood furniture and books, she asks Vaněk about being in prison as she tries repeatedly to push food and (more) drink on him, a recurring pattern in all three plays. Questions about whether artists and/or dissidents have the right to escape the political fight and whether small things can make a difference come to a head as they resolve into a single question: should Stanekova sign a protest petition for the release of a pop singer jailed by the government? In all three of the Havel plays in the sequence, Vaněk acts as a conduit through which the other characters reveal themselves, and that dynamic is at its most unalloyed here, with a large portion of the play given to an unbroken stretch of Stanekova elaborately (and perhaps performatively) reasoning through, weighing, and justifying (perhaps most significantly to herself) her ultimate decision (there is a great pause, in both senses of great, between when she picks up her pen to sign and before she begins the extensive monologue). Skraastad's performance suggests that Stanekova is truly conflicted and sketches the shades and depths of that conflict, even as Stanekova is probably the least sympathetic on the page of the characters with whom we see Vaněk meet.

Beckett's brief Catastrophe, which he dedicated in 1982 to Havel during Havel's longest stint in prison, nicely mirrors The New World Order and bookends Havel: The Passion of Thought. We end, as we began, with a solitary, silent man whose body is entirely under the control of others. Barlow again plays this nameless, barefoot man, and, in a mirroring of the two men of The New World Order, the Director (Madeline Ciocci) and Assistant (Emily Ballou) who are arranging the man on a pedestal for a performance of some kind are both cast as women. Although the play itself mocks "the craze for explication," there is certainly support for interpreting the characters' theater as political. The Director is costumed in all in black, including a trench coat, and her Assistant's jumpsuit and accessories have a military feel. The Director (who, in a notable effect, becomes for awhile a disembodied voice of authority when she moves towards the back of the house) is adamant that his hands cannot be made into fists, and Ballou's delivery of the questioning phrase "join them" makes it seem as if she is talking about something other than the man's hands.

Playing multiple characters interacting with Barlow's Vaněk and his unnamed analogs in the Pinter and Beckett pieces, the uniformly excellent cast creates connections among the people with whom Vaněk interacts in a range of situations, reinforcing the production's themes. For instance, the impression of the final tableau of Catastrophe is one of resilience, an idea that can be traced back through the four plays that precede it as well. It is of a piece with a difference in thought between Stanekova and Vaněk: the former has the loosely-formed idea that we must turn to activists to effect change, while the latter believes in there just being enough "decent people." The relevance of these debates has acquired a renewed clarity and urgency, and Havel: The Passion of Thought provokes laughter, reflection, and one hopes, a passion for (to use a phrase of Havel's) living in the truth.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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