October 31, 2010
Vaclav Havel may be one of the few men in history to have distinguished himself as both a politician and playwright. So it should come as no surprise that much of his theatrical work has a political cast. What’s more, Havel is a Czech writer, which means his work is strongly influenced by the Czech whose name is so well known it has become an adjective, Franz Kafka.
The Memorandum, first produced at the Theater on the Balustrade in 1968, is an absurdist play that reflects the alienation felt by most Czechs as a result of Soviet domination. But the play also has universal themes more akin to the work of Kafka: hopelessness, dehumanization, persecution, senseless cruelty, the struggle for power. For some, the inherent absurdity of such work leads to comedy, for others, tragedy. The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) production, directed by Jenn Thompson has a little of both.
Josef Gross (James Prendergast), the director of an unidentified organization, receives a memorandum one day in apalette language he cannot understand. After some enquiry he finds out this language is Ptydepe, which was created to make language clearer by getting rid of the similarities between words.
Gross soon finds himself unable to get the memorandum translated even by the few who do understand the new language because all translators need a permit that has not yet been issued. The next day, Gross’s deputy, Jan Ballas (Mark Alhadeff), the evil mastermind of the entire language debacle, takes over Gross's job and Gross becomes his deputy and is eventually deemed unworthy even for that position. He is saved from dismissal by becoming the staff watcher. In addition to the job shufflings, there are several reversals of policy familiar to anyone who knows the history of the Soviet Union, and an ending that makes no sense and solves nothing.
The acting in The Memorandum is uniformly superb. Prendergast is to be especially commended for doing such an excellent job after stepping so late into the role in which Simon Jones was originally cast. (Jones had a car accident which, though not major, sidelined him from rehearsals) And Jeffrey C. Hawkins is particularly effective as the silent automation Pillar. The minimal, sanitary and generic office designed by Adrian W. Jones truly evokes the spirit of play, as do David Toser’s black and gray costumes. Even Joseph Trapanese’s vaguely upbeat and unspecific music between scenes is a perfect counterpart to the colorless individuals in the office.
However, despite all these virtues, the play somehow comes off as lifeless as those gray suits. It’s hard to become interested in these characters or their fate. Sometimes it’s hard to even understand some of their actions. Why do they carry fire extinguishers? Why do they drink milk from a bottle? Does this reflect something in Soviet or Czech culture? Or does it have a wide meaning.
This story may well reflect life under the Soviet Union. But with the Communists gone for over a decade, we surely need a new whipping boy for our communal fears about the future of the world. Time marches on, and plays, even substantial ones, don’t always keep in step.