By Ed Kliszus
In 1948, Czechoslovakia was the last democracy in Eastern Europe to fall under communist rule.
Audience presented a remarkable story about former Czechoslovak president Václav Havel. It was an examination of a moment in time when, under the boot of Soviet oppression and occupation in Czechoslovakia, the renowned author and intellectual Havel was forced to work in a regional brewery. Havel had also suffered multiple imprisonments as a banished playwright. This story is set before Havel’s time as Czechoslovakia’s president from 1989-1992 and president again of the Czech Republic through 2003.
Today’s production began with film clips familiarizing the audience with the decades of Soviet communism from 1948-1989 imposed on the people of Czechoslovakia. We see scenes of indoctrinating children in schools, propaganda, government-controlled press and media, and typical manifestations of communist totalitarian rule that crushed the democratic hopes and dreams of Czechoslovakia.
In the play, the character Ferdinand Vaněk (Vít Hořejš) is the nom de plum of Václav Havel. The scene began with Vaněk rolling a large oak beer barrel and opening it. Inside was The Brewmaster (Theresa Linnihan), who awakened, emerged, and opened the barrel to reveal several levels in what might be described as a child’s doll house. This heralded an extended period of verbal fencing fueled by the Brewmaster’s beer consumption between the sophisticated bourgeoisie Vaněk and the proletariat Brewmaster.
The Brewmaster continually goaded and antagonized Vaněk, seemingly to trap him into saying something that might criticize the communist party or factory leadership. But Vaněk is stalwart. While the Brewmaster tries to weaken his resolve with alcohol consumption, Vaněk surreptitiously pours most of the beer back into the Brewmaster’s mug.
The use of stringed marionettes, puppets, and full-sized masks in portraying this story is extraordinary. Theresa Linnihan and Vít Hořejš deftly managed the puppets as multiple cameras zoomed in on the action and projected it on a large screen set on stage left. The screen on stage right continually portrayed in black and white scenes from the perspectives of Kam 1, Kam 2, Kam 3, and Kam 4, which initially seemed to represent a reality of the material world perceptible to the senses, as expounded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their dialectical materialism. It also represents monitoring by an oppressive government that seems to see and hear everything.
Mechanical puppets staged in the miniature scenes in the beer barrel were activated by Linnihan. As the Brewmaster became increasingly belligerent and frustrated by Vaněk’s continued composure and politesse, larger, more intimidating marionettes replaced the smaller ones. The play ended with a life-sized masked caricature sported by the Brewmaster. Our hero Vaněk prevailed.
The theater was packed, and the cast was rewarded with multiple curtain calls. Patrons chuckled and sighed as the story unfolded. Audience was presented with fine acting, powerful multi-dimensional visuals, cultural significance, context and import, rich vigilance, and irony. Lighting was simple and effective, audio-visuals were seamless and informative, the costumes and marionettes were well-crafted, and sound and sound effects ably supported the aural palate. How one’s eyes were drawn from the actors to the miniatures, screens, marionettes, puppets, and masks was astonishing.
by Václav Havel (World Premiere)
Translated and Directed by Vít Hořejš
Theresa Linnihan as The Brewmaster
Vít Hořejš as Ferdinand Vaněk
Production Design: Alan Barnes Netherton
Marionettes: Miloš Kasal, Jakub “Kuba” Krejčí
Costumes, Vaněk, and Brewmaster marionettes: Theresa Linnihan
News Reel: Suzanna Halsey
Spy: Kika Von Klück
Production Stage Manager: Rebecca Werner
Lighting Designer: Izzy Olgaard
Light Board Operator: Eric Sanford
Producer: Bonnie Sue Stein/GOH Productions
Rehearsal Director: Maxim Tumenev
Program Manager: Katarina Vizina
Production Assistant: Lanier Long
Video Consultants: CultureHub
Runtime 80 minutes with no intermission
Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre/GOH Productions
309 4th St, Suite 3B, New York, NY 10009
Ellen Stewart Theatre
66 East 4th St., New York, NY 10003
Tickets at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/42
Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Gemma Trattoria, Radio Macbeth, Love Online, and The Orchestra Now at the Rose Theater.