The latest of Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s additions to The Vaclav Havel Project (originally part of the Mutual Inspirations Festival), Vanek Unleashed is a funny, imaginative, and lyrical take on the work of Václav Havel. Combined with the previous success story of Unveiling, the current iteration of the Project is a thought-provoking and entertaining two hours of theatre.
Much of my previous review of Unveiling still stands, and I won’t bore you by repeating information on Havel or Alliance’s work. I’m happy to report that Unveiling definitely holds up to a second viewing. If Ron Heneghan’s Michael is less earthy and physical than Larry Redmond’s portrayal, he’s also glossier and more put-together. It’s more surprising when the facade cracks.
Moving on to the new work.
was devised, scripted, and directed by Susan Galbraith with original music by Maurice Saylor and Snark Ensemble. Based on Havel’s Letters to Olga, Unleashed was created as an entry for the Prague Fringe Festival later this month. Drew Valins reprises his role as Czech everyman Ferdinand Vaněk, writing and dreaming during his political imprisonment. Valins is so aggressively harmless as Vaněk that it’s hard to imagine him being “unleashed” in any way. It also seems impossible, given that he’s in prison.
But from the opening moments when Vaněk is visited by his wife Eva (Pamela Bierly Jusino) and an actor friend Landovsky (Ron Heneghan), it quickly becomes clear that Vaněk’s imprisonment doesn’t really keep him in check. Along with The Blonde Soprano (Meghan McCall), these characters play out all of Vaněk’s insecurities in song: his personal issues with relationships, the trouble he has writing, his fear of fame, his sense of hypocrisy, and his sympathy for people who feel that they have no choice but to be complicit in the system. Vaněk’s gift is his ability to bring these characters – these people – to life, but he seems troubled by his own existence. The production ends with the question “What will we do with freedom when we get it?”, and the script deftly conflates Vaněk’s freedom with the freedom of Czech society. Will the future really be better than the present? Will Vaněk be able to make his liberty worth something? That self-reproach even creeps its way into Galbraith’s staging of Vaněk’s musical fancies: the others sing and dance their way through the various dilemmas, while Vaněk is usually left as the drab, unmusical center of the show.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Vaněk Unleashed is how polished it feels as a musical. That’s not to say that it’s a large-scale and glamorous production, but just that it wouldn’t feel out of place for fifty showgirls to cancan their way on to the stage. The more complex the movements required of them, the more precise the cast is in their actions and timing. I was actually surprised not to find a separate choreographer listed in the program, meaning that Galbraith has another feather for her cap. Jusino and McCall have amazing voices, and if the men can’t sing to the same standards they’re also not asked to push beyond their abilities. Heneghan is impressively physical; I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone act a mustache and a gut that hard. And as for Valins? Well, he’s as Vaněk as Vaněk gets.
Secretary Madeleine Albright once remarked, “If you want to get to know Havel, go see his plays.” Alliance for New Music-Theatre continues to make sure that we have that opportunity. And if their work is any indication, Václav Havel was a man of great courage, imagination, humbleness, and empathy. You should take the time to get to know him.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes long, with one ten-minute intermission.
The Václav Havel Project plays through May 18, 2014 at Artisphere – 1101 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 841-2787, or purchase them online.
Alliance for New Music-Theatre Presents ‘The Václav Havel Project’ May 7-8,11,14-15 &18th by Susan Galbraith and Janice Kaplan.