The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) is presenting “an innovative re-interpretation of a classic, combining live performances with puppets” at the resourceful Theater for the New City in the East Village.
The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the First World War is a classic journey into a satirical, picaresque anti-war message first revealed in the novel by Jaroslav Hašek published in several volumes in the early twenties. It is one of the most translated books by a Czech writer. Hašek served in World War I and his experiences fueled his sardonically funny novel.
Švejk was adapted for stage productions soon after by such theater luminaries as Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. The new, loose-legged adaptation at TNC is by Vít Hořejš who also directed this production.
Performed in the intimate Cabaret Theater of the TNC, the actors, each assigned a marionette, burst onto the stage in a frenzy of arranging set pieces as Hořejš begins telling the story of the befuddled Švejk and his inadvertent misadventures on his way to become “cannon fodder” for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The convoluted plot begins when we are introduced to Švejk in his small hometown kvetching about his rheumatism and schmoozing with his friends over beers. They joke about the recent assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, not understanding the chaos that act has unleashed.
He is arrested, accused of making traitorous comments about the Archduke and forcefully inducted into the army beginning a series of adventures—actually misadventures. They take poor Švejk from his hometown to towns far away where he gets himself into one life-threatening situation after another, guilelessly thwarting death and disgrace.
He manages to miss the train to his training camp and to waste what little money he’s given treating lowlife hangers-on to beers, leaving him yet again poverty-stricken, forced to hoof it to his destination.
Along his up and down path to serve in the army he finds himself under the thumb of an ever-more-pompous series of sergeants, lieutenants, captains and royalty, working his way up to the highest echelons, tripping over his inadequacies and bumbling while somehow coming out smelling like a rose. The most imaginative features of the CAMT staging of Švejk are the set and costumes of Theresa Linnihan and the extraordinary marionettes constructed by Jakub “Kuba” Krejči, Václav Krčál, Ivan Antoš and Miloš Kasal. Linnihan has ingeniously constructed her costumes from what looks like a combination of cardboard and papier maché, molding them to fit over the bodies of the actors and painting them to represent each individual character (peasant, soldier, officer, housekeeper, etc.). Her sets, panels and coffin-shaped boxes, are constantly moved about to artfully suggest each period location.
The marionettes—after all this is a marionette theater—are splendidly exaggerated, each with a personality of his or her own, including a mop head morphed into an incredibly agile puppy. All the actors are also excellent puppeteers, doubling their connection with the sold-out audience.
The style of acting of this troupe can be described as good-naturedly goofy, stressing old-school shtick and exaggeration. Humorously, each actor in turn takes on the eponymous role, tacitly putting across the “everyman” quality of the character, that is if every man is a lucky bumpkin.
The cast of eight bravely don hilariously embellished fake mustaches, beards, hats and wigs to play what seems like scores of characters. They are Deborah Beshaw-Farrell, Michelle Beshaw, Rocco George, Gage Morgan, Sammy Rivas, Ben Watts, and Linnihan (displaying another facet of her talent) and, of course, the director Hořejš. They fill the stage with their good-natured energy.
The novel Good Soldier Švejk was the ironically funny view of war, the other side of the coin to its contemporary, Erich Maria Remarque’s depressing portrait in his All Quiet on the Western Front. CAMT’s production hides a good deal of the deeper meaning, the sardonic tone of the original, in order to make an entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but a deeper interpretation would make an otherwise colorful, zesty production more profound.
The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the First World War (through February 18, 2024)
Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre
Cabaret Theater of Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission