Review: ‘Adapt!’ At The Wilma Theater

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Adapt! is a new play that tells the story of Lenka, an immigrant from Communist-era Czechoslovakia who dreams of living in New York City. It’s a world premiere production, written and directed by Blanka Zizka, the Wilma Theater’s longtime Artistic Director.

Zizka’s play is autobiographical, ambitious, and has much potential. The production values are high, with meticulous set, sound, costume and lighting design by Matt Saunders, Daniel Perelstein, Oana Botez, and Thom Weaver, respectively. There are also some beautiful musical moments, including a recording of Dvorak’s “Song of the Moon” from the opera Rusalka, and Ukrainian chants sung by the ensemble.

Aneta Kernová (right) and ensemble. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Aneta Kernová (right) and ensemble. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Unfortunately, the various components of the show – the music, action and dialogue – are not always cohesive. At times there is just too much happening onstage. There are so many different devices employed that they upstage the acting, the possible poignancy of an immigration narrative, and the rare focus on Czech culture/history.

There is a lot of symbolism in the play. For example, clothes fall onto the floor from the ceiling to indicate materialism, and Eastern Bloc Communists wear pig masks. A cowboy appears in the second act accompanied by a southwest backdrop and epic music. Adapt! depicts some otherworldly elements with an Old Woman character (played by Aneza Papadopoulou) who is able to conjure up flashbacks and scenes from the future. Does she represent Lenka’s conscience, dreams, an ancestor, archetypes or the Divine? In tandem with the symbolism, Adapt! also incorporates a few meta-theatrical moments that muddle Lenka’s immigration story.

There is an attempt at character development throughout the different stages of Lenka’s life. However, since the story is not linear and there is so much action (at the expense of dialogue), there are gaps in this development that make it hard to follow. I only partially understood who Lenka’s friend Marek was; and since scenes with Lenka’s husband Pavel only happen in the future, it’s unclear if she ever really would have had a husband. Even Lenka herself is not fleshed out enough to really appreciate her motivations to leave Europe and go to New York City. It’s certain that she was “starving,” since this is repeated several times in different scenes, and that she didn’t like living in a Communist country. But there were millions of people in the Soviet Bloc who stayed put and endured. What made some of them leave and others remain?

Aneta Kernová and Krista Apple. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Aneta Kernová and Krista Apple. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

There is some excellent acting in the play. As the Old Woman, Papadopoulou is consistent and omnipotent. She is powerful, defiant and eerie. As Lenka 35, a future version of Lenka, Krista Apple is quite convincing. Pavel, Lenka 35’s husband, played by Steven Rishard, is a somewhat sleazy yet intriguing character that I wish had been further developed. As the younger Lenka, Aneta Kernová gave a good performance, but her spoken dialogue is somewhat stilted. Anthony Martinez-Briggs, as a hot dog seller, stood out amongst all of the absurdity and noise with his fresh, simple and natural delivery. Some memorable scenes that work include one set to Madonna’s “Material Girl”; scenes with Lenka 35 in her bathtub; and a flashback to when she first meets her husband.

By far the most compelling aspects of the script itself are its references to Czech culture and history, and the insertion of music. The use of authentic Czech protest songs, composed by Karel Kryl, is intriguing – although the musical style doesn’t quite fit in with the chants or the recorded music. The projection of the New York cityscape and Central Park (with related recorded music) onto the wall is very effective. The lighting design and projection contextualize and support the action well.

I recommend Adapt! for experienced theatregoers who enjoy experimental and innovative productions, and those specifically interested in Czech history. Note that there is a talk back discussion with the cast after each performance!

Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

Aneta Kernová. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Aneta Kernová. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Adapt! plays through April 22, 2017 at The Wilma Theater — 256 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 546-7824, or purchase them online.

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