It’s that time of the year again, when the unparalleled PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) comes to New York City, livening up the dog days of summer.
For the PTP/NYC 33rd summer repertory season, they have chosen to focus on Vaclav Havel, his plays, and playwrights who were inspired by him and his fight “to live a life in service of the truth.” On alternate evenings, they present “Havel: the Passion of Thought,” a series of one acts including Havel’s Vanek Plays; and “Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth,” two interrelated one-acts by Tom Stoppard. Havel, the Czech playwright, essayist, dissident and politician, spent time in prison for his activities on behalf of human rights (including his plays, which at one point were banned), the longest stint being nearly four years, from 1979-1983. Living a life in service of the truth means one may not only be persecuted, but also become a stranger in one’s own country. The first production, “Havel: the Passion of Thought” is bookended by Pinter and Beckett, with three of Havel’s Vanek plays in the middle. In Pinter’s The New World Order, a hooded Man (David Barlow) sits on a block with his back to the audience facing the two thuggish men in charge of his future torture, Desmond (Michael Lawrence) and Lionel (Christopher Marshall). These two charmers face the audience (the Lawrence-Marshall duo act is excellent). Dressed in the anonymous garb of civil servants – white shirts with sleeves neatly rolled up, black ties and black trousers – the two range from chilling to ridiculous, as when Lionel objects to Desmond calling the Man a prick when he has already called him a cunt. “The terms are mutually contradictory. You’d lose face in any linguistic discussion group, take my tip, ” says Lionel. Call this semantic comic relief. But when Desmond says he feels so “pure” when he thinks of what he is about to do to the Man and his wife, there is no relief at all.
In the Vanek Plays, the constant is brilliant David Barlow as Vanek in all three, the stand in for Havel himself. Barlow, a master of restraint, with every emotion registering on his expressive, malleable face, is a perfect foil for all of the chaos and insanity around him.
In “Interview,” Vanek is summoned to the office of the Brewmaster (Michael Lawrence, in an imbibing-busting, emotional rollercoaster of a performance). The Brewmaster, who chugs at least ten beers while Vanek tries to nurse his one (he does not like beer), offers to get Vanek out of the basement rolling barrels into a cushy office position – provided he writes reports on himself. Sound bizarre? It is. Vanek blows it, but he has another chance, once he knows what the game is.
In “Private View,” Vanek visits the apartment of a couple, Michael (Christopher Marshall) and Vera (Emily Kron), who claim to be his “best friends.” But hosts and home have undergone a transformation: their once-drab apartment (Scenic Design throughout by Mark Evancho) is now filled with new stuff. Over-decorated to the nines in chrome, steel, black, white, with the red accents coming from the eye-popping attire of the hosts (by Costume Designer Glenna Ryer), their behavior is over-the-top. Marshall and Kron are delicious together, having a grand time with joint melt-downs. They seem to have given up on any cause, on any kind of fight for humanity. They have sold out to the system. Their goal is to persuade Vanek to join them, to assuage their guilt.
In “Protest,” Vanek is summoned to his old friend Stanekova’s (Danielle Skraastad) home. Once a fighter for freedom herself, she now has a well-appointed house with a garden full of flowers and Magnolia trees. She also has a fairly important job in television, and though her films are censored, they are broadcast. In the span of twenty minutes, several times she offers Vanek: brandy, peanuts, cuttings, a pulmonary specialist, slippers. But what she wants is a protest letter, which Vanek has already anticipated. Stanekova accepts help. Accepts others’ signatures. Accepts others risking on her behalf. But when it comes to her signing the document…. Skraastad is appropriately conflicted, outraged, guilty, accusatory, relieved. Even someone of Stanekova’s intellect balks when it comes to self-sacrifice.
A word or two about the Vanek plays. Everyone tries to make Vanek drink. Everyone cries. And everyone, it seems, wants something from Vanek, but above all, his absolution. Vanek, soft-spoken, slightly stooped, remains himself throughout. He remains in service of the truth.
The evening ends with Samuel Beckett’s “Catastrophe,” which he dedicated to Havel. In a theatre, a Director (Madeline Ciocci) barks orders at her Assistant (Emily Ballou) to pose the Protagonist (David Barlow), who is standing on a block center stage. His hands clasped together, his arms raised, his head bent, he looks to be martyred to his cause. But the Director has a committee she needs to go to, and the Assistant also exits. The Protagonist slowly raises his head, high, bathed in golden light. That moment is… well, you must simply see it for yourself.
When a reviewer claimed that the ending to “Catastrophe” was ambiguous, Beckett angrily replied, “There’s no ambiguity at all. He’s saying, you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.”
The second evening belongs to Stoppard’s diptych, “Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.” If plays are banned in the theatre, what better way to still have them performed than in people’s apartments? And if the rooms are bugged, what better way to communicate than to subvert the language, so that only the people who know each other – in this case, the actors – understand what is being said?
As Stoppard cleverly clarifies, “…the first is hardly a play at all without the second, which cannot be performed without the first.” And so “Dogg’s Hamlet” begins with three schoolchildren (Madeline Russell, Zach Varricchione, Connor Wright) rehearsing a performance of Hamlet in a foreign language – English. They speak Dogg, which consists of ordinary English words but with meanings completely different from the ones originally assigned to them. A builder, Easy (Matthew Ball), arrives with a delivery of many super-sized building blocks, speaking English, so no other character can understand him. When he calls for different blocks, they are thrown to him correctly from assistants presumably offstage who do understand him. Shakespeare (Peter Schmitz) makes an appearance. The Lady (Tara Giordano), who looks suspiciously like Queen Elizabeth, shows up. Then everyone breaks into an extremely abridged version of Hamlet, including Gertrude (Lucy Van Atta), Hamlet (Christo Grabowski), the Gravedigger (Lior Selve) and Polonious (Will Koch), in the language of Shakespeare, not Dogg – twice.
To call this slapstick is to underplay the specificity of the direction of Cheryl Faraone and the dexterity of the actors in “Dogg’s Hamlet.” This is not a free-for-all. There are performers and blocks and fainting and falling and swordplay, sometimes all at once. It is more like a hilarious ballet, where coordination and timing are crucial. Faraone and the cast make it look easy.
“Cahoot’s Macbeth” takes place in a private apartment. It’s going well. Christopher Marshall’s Macbeth is rolling, as are Lady M (Denise Cormier) and the witches (Emily Ma, Olivia Christie, Katie Marshall). The Hostess (Lucy Van Atta) is pleased. Until, that is, an Inspector (Tara Giordano, played with perfectly offensive officiousness) knocks, enters, makes it clear that the place has been bugged, threatens everyone with prison, and gives them five minutes to disperse. She leaves, and the actors choose to ignore her. Macbeth carries on. The Inspector enters a second time, and the actors (the rest of whom are also in “Dogg’s Hamlet”) momentarily stop. A builder, Easy (Matthew Ball) again arrives with a delivery of many super-sized building blocks. This time, he is speaking Dogg. At first, no one understands him. Then they reveal they also speak Dogg. This only infuriates the Inspector further. They continue Macbeth..in Dogg. There is nothing the Inspector can do, beyond sputter and makes demands that no one heeds. They understand each other. She does not understand them. They cannot even be arrested, because no one listening understands them, either.
At the end of “Cahooot’s MacBeth,” Dogg, which was an absurdist language with no meaning in “Dogg’s Hamlet,” is now the language of subversion and opposition to a repressive, totalitarian government. It is known only to the artists. It is exhilarating. The art continues to live, as do the artists. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Potomac Theatre Project has a knack for choosing plays that fit the times. These plays, under the assured direction of Richard Romagnoli and Cheryl Faraone, are urgent right now. A night in the theatre with this company is a night of revelations. I am running out of superlatives to describe them. That is an awfully good position to be in. The best I can do is to urge you to dash down and see these plays.