The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) has temporarily abandoned its downtown theater roots to appear at the Rehearsal for Truth, the Theater Festival honoring Vaclav Havel at the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side.
Havel’s Audience represents CAMT’s first foray into modern Czech literature having previously staged imaginative productions of folk material. This visit to contemporary theater, unfortunately, wasn’t as successful as most of CAMT’s fairytale presentations. The combination of whimsical marionettes and psychologically sophisticated drama didn’t gel.
The autobiographical Audience pits Havel’s alter-ego, Ferdinand Vanĕk (played by Vít Hořejš who also translated and directed the play), against The Brewmaster (Theresa Linnihan) in what initially seemed to be casual, directionless banter during a workday at a beer brewing company.
Preceding the actual play were a series of historic newsreels—prepared by Suzanna Halsey—showing how Czechoslovakia (when it was still called Czechoslovakia) descended from the high hopes of 1968—euphemistically called the Prague Spring—to the depths of despair following the Soviet Union’s crushing invasion to put down what they perceived as a pro-West revolution. The newsreel images were far more frightening than Havel’s two hander which is clearly meant to reveal in everyday terms just how nefariously the communist, totalistic credo infiltrated daily life in Prague.
The actual play began with Vanĕk rolling a large beer barrel onto the stage which was populated by smaller barrels and bits and pieces of furniture and tiny puppet figures. (In order to beam the very concentrated proceedings to the fairly large auditorium, video cameras, from five angles, broadcast the action on two screens.) He opened the barrel and revealed the scrunched up Brewmaster who began the conversation as she stood up. Each carried a personal marionette, hers (actually his, as she was playing a man) was bigger than his, making a significant visual point. This size difference was reversed by the end of Audience when Vanĕk refuses to cooperate.
Their desultory conversation about family, coffee breaks, friends, etc., came across, either by choice or happenstance, as totally improvised to the point where it was hard to figure out if they were under-rehearsed or actually choosing to act Havel’s lines in a slapdash manner.
The result was Havel’s Audience deprived of what should have been a sense of building menace. As acted, this was just a boring conversation even if one character was trying to get the other to rat on his coworkers by offering him a better, cushier job.
Many playwrights have distinguishing personal styles: Tennessee Williams, his hot house sexuality; Harold Pinter, his famous pauses; and Havel his crescendo of deadly menace in bureaucratic situations.
When a Havel play is deflated into a sweet puppet play, even if the puppets clearly represent the playwright’s intent, the conversation just tediously clatters on without landing any dramatic punch.
The production was designed by Alan Barnes Netherton; the marionettes by Miloš Kasal, Jakub “Kuba” Krejčí and Linnihan (who also designed the workaday costumes); and the video jointly by Rome Brown and Kika Von Klűck (who handled the cameras).
CAMT, a presence in New York since 1990, has entertained audiences with its often imaginatively off-kilter shows. This presentation was, unfortunately, not representative of their work.
Audience (return engagement: February 2-19, 2023)
Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre
La Mama E.T.C. in association with GOH Productions and the Václav Havel Library Foundation
Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 60 minutes