“Everything is real, especially that crate of beers.” That’s not a preface you expect to hear at the theatre, but it’s a fitting opening to The Václav Havel Project, presented by Alliance for New Music-Theatre. The set of two plays (Antiwords and Unveiling) is a love-letter to Havel the artist-dissident, full of sly humor, societal critiques, and a surprisingly subversive look at the nature of theatre itself.
It’s tempting to make this review a lesson about Havel himself, but there are better resources to learn about the man and his work. The subject of this year’s Mutual Inspirations Festival, Havel has made a lasting impact as both an artist and a human rights advocate. One of his most well-known contributions to the arts is the character of Ferdinand Vaněk, the Czech-everyman and author stand-in who became a national symbol. Vaněk is the protagonist of Unveiling and Audience (restaged as Antiwords), the two pieces which make up The Václav Havel Project. Originally focused on life in Communist Czechoslovakia, the two pieces have been updated to be broader in their critique without losing any of their incisive power.
Antiwords, directed by Miřenka Čechová (whose Spitfire Company originally developed the work in the Czech Republic), is the first play of the set. Čechová and performer Jindřiška Křivánková spend most of the performance seated at a wooden table, wearing oversized bronze masks that transform them into old, bald men. The few pieces of dialogue are both played over the sound-system in Czech and projected on the back wall in English; the words stutter and repeat, refusing to turn into anything resembling a plot. For the most part, Čechová and Křivánková sit at the table and drink beer.
It sounds simple, but the actuality is anything but. Before Antiwords begins, technical artist Robert Janč makes a short speech on behalf of the director, who has been banned from entering the United States. The gist is that the director is concerned with realism, and so he has mandated that the actors in the play drink real beer as the scene progresses. “Everything is real, especially that crate of beers.” Everything is real: Čechová is the actual director of the work and she’s standing to the side and waiting for Janč to finish so she can go on. Everything is real: the audience is already muttering about European politics, the Cold War, and their need for a beer at intermission. Everything is real: the performers lift their masks to actually drink beer during the performance, and bottle after bottle winds up in the on-stage trash bins. Křivánková pounds hers back; Čechová takes longer, and looks ill by the end of the show. Everything is real: I thought Čechová might vomit on stage, and if she had I wouldn’t have known for sure whether it was acting or not. The fact that the two women are consummate physical performers, doing some of the best mask-work I’ve ever seen and effortlessly trading roles as the piece goes on, is almost a secondary concern.
Unveiling (also directed by Čechová) is a significantly less challenging piece of theatre, having more to say about society and less about art itself. Ferdinand Vaněk (Drew Valins) visits the home of his friends Michael (Lawrence Redmond) and Vera (Susan Galbraith) just in time for the “unveiling” of their newly decorated home. The cast is pitch-perfect here. Valins is sympathetic and subdued, and intensely sympathetic as he is continually overwhelmed by the other actors. Redmond and Galbraith are a perfect tag-team, alternating between of aggressively obnoxious happiness and The Stepford Wives creepiness and never showing anything less than a straight face. Stripped of its original political context (the couple’s success is partly a result of collaboration with the Communist party, while Vaněk’s manual job at the brewery is a result of his writing being banned), the play is a showcase for the conspicuous consumption and demand for conformity that underlies some relationships. It’s an aggressive form of happiness that needs to attack and convert. “Why don’t you have a child yet? It would fix your marriage, make it like ours. It might help to resolve your situation, although we know you don’t like to talk about it. You could have a fulfilling life, more like ours.” Michael and Vera’s furious responses to Vaněk’s ambivalence are both hilarious in their disproportionateness and chilling in their ferocity. Vaněk’s position as an outsider is threatening to even the smallest social unit, as long as that social connection is built on the need to oppress. Unveiling never stops being hilarious, but it’s also honest and thought-provoking
If the two plays that make up The Václav Havel Project seem wildly divergent, that’s largely due to the scope of Václav Havel’s legacy. The plays aren’t simply restagings: they’re personal responses to Havel’s life and work, merely a hint of the man’s legacy. The plays are also excellent performances in their own right, making The Václav Havel Project a must-see piece of theatre.
Running Time: Two hours, with one fifteen minute intermission.
The Václav Havel Project has one more performance tonight at 8 PM at Alliance for New Music-Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H St. NE in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at 202-399-7993, or purchase them online.
‘Antiwords’ Inspired by Václav Havel’s ‘Audience’ by Eliza Anna Falk.