Review: "The Good Soldier Švejk" Marches to the Tune of Some Great Puppeteers

The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the First World War

Adapted and directed by Vít Hořejš

Based on the novel by Jaroslav Hašek

Presented by Theater for the New City, produced in cooperation with GOH Productions, at Theater for the New City

155 First Ave., Manhattan, NYC

February 1-18, 2024

Michelle Beshaw, Deborah Beshaw, Rocco George. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Published between 1921 and 1923, Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek's unfinished, multivolume satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, commonly shortened to The Good Soldier Švejk, holds the distinction of being the most translated novel in Czech literature and has had a cultural impact of which its probable Influence on Joseph Heller, author of seminal World War II satire Catch-22 (1961), and its definite influence on Bertolt Brecht, who wrote a sequel titled Schweyk in the Second World (1943), represent only two examples. Now, adding a sadly necessary modifier to the title, the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) brings its adaptation of this influential work, The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the First World War, to the stage. Directed by Prague émigré and CAMT founder Vít Hořejš, the lively, entertaining Good Soldier Švejk presents its everyman protagonist's absurd (mis)adventures through a blend of live actors, marionettes, and, in one section, silhouette shadow puppets.   

L to R: Gage Morgan, Michelle Beshaw, Theresa Linnihan, Deborah Beshaw. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Following a bit of humorous metatheater, some of which will gain thematic import later, we are introduced to Švejk as news of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand's assassination, the inciting incident of World War I, is spreading. Švejk's reaction in this and the following scene of both affably oblivious blockheadedness (he seemingly first thinks that the assassin's victim is one of two local Ferdinands whom he knows personally) and enthusiastically proclaimed patriotism (he says that he can't wait to serve as cannon fodder for the Austro-Hungarian Emperor), establish the characteristics that will define him throughout the play. Despite his loudly proclaimed desire to fight in a war that he also publicly avows will be won quickly and easily by his side, Švejk keeps being prevented from actually joining up with his regiment. By the end of the second scene, for instance, he has already been arrested (for the first time), along with the innkeeper of the establishment in which he was drinking. Švejk's extremely circuitous journey to the front takes on a picaresque form, and his interactions with representatives of various social institutions–the military, the aristocracy, the medical establishment, the police, the church–provide opportunities to satirize each (Sammy Rivas's turn as a field chaplain is one particularly funny example). Throughout it all, Švejk, his sideline in dog theft an amusing indicator of his low position on the socioeconomic ladder, is most interested in eating, drinking (generally alcohol), and having somewhere to sleep; more than once, he draws others into gustatory activities to his benefit. Although Švejk claims that the military had officially certified him to be an "idiot" and "genuinely feeble-minded," the womanizing lieutenant to whom Švejk is assigned as an orderly articulates a foundational ambiguity in the play when he says to Švejk that he would "like to know whether you were born feeble-minded, or whether you only pretend."
Rocco George (as Doctor) and Michelle Beshaw (as Baroness). Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
The latter, of course, would offer an average person an avenue of subversion and resistance in the face of an overwhelming political-military apparatus; and the production cleverly highlights Švejk's everyman status by having nearly everyone in the cast–which consists of Deborah Beshaw-Farrell, Michelle Beshaw, Rocco George, Vít Hořejš, Theresa Linnihan, Gage Morgan, Sammy Rivas, and Ben Watts–play the lead character at some point, each bringing his or her own interpretation to the role. The marionettes brought to life by the actors vary from small enough, like the innkeeper, to fit in a large beer mug, to several feet tall, and a unit of soldiers puppeteered by a single cast member makes an impressive appearance. With some of the smaller marionettes, the actor-puppeteers' costumes almost function simultaneously as backdrops, and the cast draws on various (non-Czech) accents to help characterize and place the various people whom Švejk encounters. While the show is a comedy, and often embraces silliness, the target of its satire is, one might say, deadly serious; and the threat of death, which finally intrudes directly in the play's effective climax, lingers ever on the margins through repeated coffin shapes in the set design and the violent content of cheery-sounding battle songs. While Švejk may be anything but a good soldier, CAMT's adaptation of his story achieves a clear victory.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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