Review: In Marionette Production of Havel's "Audience," It's a Question of Who's Pulling the Strings


Written by Vaclav Havel

Translated and directed by Vít Hořejš

Presented by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre

at Bohemian National Hall, Manhattan, NYC

June 23 and 29, 2021

L to R: Theresa Linnihan as The Brewmaster, Vít Hořejš as Vanek. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
There is an irony to the title of Vaclav Havel's 1975 one-act play Audience—one tends to think of being granted or summoned to an audience with some elite personage rather than a brewery worker—just as there is some irony to staging with marionettes a play in which one character is being puppeteered, as it were, to try to gain a form of control over another. There is also, though it might sound strange for a play about omnipresent surveillance under an oppressive Communist regime, a tremendous amount of fun in this production by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT), presented as part of the 2021 Rehearsal for Truth Theater Festival honoring Vaclav Havel.

The comedic Audience—preceded here by a short video by Suzanna Halsey that uses newsreel-style and archival footage and still images to establish the historical context of the play—is the first of four plays by Havel to feature Havel-analog Ferdinand Vaněk as their protagonist. In it, Vaněk, a dissident writer and intellectual, has been obligated to work in a brewery as a manual laborer, a situation that parallels Havel's own experience. The brewmaster (simultaneously played and puppeteered by veteran CAMT member Theresa Linnihan) attempts to ply Vaněk (played and puppeteered by Prague-born theater artist and CAMT co-founder Vít Hořejš, who escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1978 and, with Bonnie Sue Stein, interviewed Havel in 1989), with beer and seemingly friendly questions. As the play and the brewmaster's drunkenness progress, it becomes clear that the brewmaster has ulterior, externally-directed motives, but it also becomes clear that alongside the contrasts in their sobriety, backgrounds, and principles, they share more similarity as subjects of the Communist regime than we and they might have thought.
L to R: Vít Hořejš as Vanek,Theresa Linnihan as The Brewmaster. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
In CAMT's imaginative production, the star of a set design populated by beer bottles, casks, and a hand truck is a wooden barrel that transforms into the toy theater that serves as the primary locus of the action. One onstage screen shows the views from a quartet of surveillance cameras, emphasizing the theme of surveillance, while a second screen shows a live video feed shot by Kika Von Klück that focuses on the marionettes or zooms in on small illustrative tableaux, often with moving parts, that are built into the barrel itself. And while the brewmaster and Vaněk start out as marionettes of the same size, a symbolic point about their power differential is made by using a much larger marionette for the brewmaster, one who often comes across as throwing his wooden weight around as he flops into seated positions or hurries off to relieve himself yet again. Linnihan reinforces this dynamic by often having the brewmaster lean towards or into Vaněk's personal space. Linnihan and Hořejš play commendably off of one another, the pushy, of the brewmaster, whose recurring question "Why aren't you drinking?" Linnihan delivers as suspicious rather than convivial, complementing Vaněk's measured, scrupulously precautious demeanor.
Florida's recent (and likely unconstitutional) legislation demanding documentation of student and faculty political beliefs at public colleges and universities comes to mind when one thinks about how Audience continues to resonate powerfully across national and temporal boundaries. CAMT revives this still vital play with humor, empathy, artistry, and invention.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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