The Mead Theatre Lab has rarely felt as inviting as it did for Wednesday night’s performance of Protest, the thoughtful political two-hander currently being produced by the internationally-minded Ambassador Theater. Snacks, drinks, and colorful tablecloths cover the small tables arranged nicely throughout the room, creating an evening café environment suited to some nice pre-show conversation among guests. Is there any room to be made in the newly-revamped Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding table service?I recommend making that complimentary glass of Pilsner last, though, because some periodic breaks will need to be taken from the evening’s main activity: a collective attempt to parse Ambassador’s very strange staging of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel’s 1978 drama, here presented as an original adaptation by director Gail Humphries Mardirosian.
Let’s hold off on discussing the adaptation for the moment and start with the play itself. Havel is a prominent Czech voice whose numerous and widely translated plays bring a fierce intellect and sense of individualism to discussions of human rights, free speech, and creative expression. The fact that he served as the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and the first president of the Czech Republic for the following decade certainly adds some oomph to his resume.
His Protest is a lean, efficient play of ideas. The story goes like this: a dissident artist (who, it’s fairly clear, is a stand-in for Havel himself) named Vanek (played by Michael Crowley) pays a visit to his longtime colleague Stanek (Ivan Zizek), a playwright. Vanek hopes that Stanek will sign a protest letter. Both men have a number of points to make about rights, duties, and political systems, and each in turn leads the conversation down some unexpected paths.
During this encounter, which lasts not much more than an hour, Havel carves out a clear set of beliefs for each character, then embeds these details like buried treasure within a thick web of false conclusions and theoretical counter-arguments, so that we must wind our way through the dialogue scanning for the truth behind the rhetoric. The process requires patience and focus on our parts.
The play’s points are complex, but as a piece of theatre its needs are very simple. Which is why this Protest feels rather baffling. Ambassador’s staging is well-meaning and not without its clever details, but it suffers from a very particular and rather common malady: the show works in service of the director’s concept rather than in service of the script itself.
The new vision here from Mardirosian requires four actors rather than two, with the characters of Vanek and Stanek mirrored in female form on the other side of the playing space. There, Vankova (Sissel Bakken) and Stankova (Hanna Bondarewska) perform a complementary version of the play right in time with the men. Much of the play is spoken in unison. At other times, one side of the stage will re-perform the dialogue spoken mere seconds before, line by line. We hear, and see, much of Protest twice.
A program note argues that this idea “emphasizes the universality of the characters.” And at first the novelty of this premise is appealing. But is Mardirosian interested in how the two tellings differ, or simply looking to point out that they’re exactly the same?
Closes December 15, 2013
Ambassador Theater at
Mead Theater Lab
916 G St NW
1 hour, 10 minutes, no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
By mid-show, the rhythm and logic of Havel’s script have become thoroughly punctured. It doesn’t help that Mardirosian doesn’t allow her performers to sit for more than two or three lines before jumping up and pacing around again, often in arcs that cross the center line and send the men into the women’s playing space and vice versa, to no measurable effect.
Such overly restive movement draws our attention, again and again, to the mirrored-gender gimmick, and further and further away from anything Havel had to say in the first place. The endeavor quickly begins to feel strained, discordant and, ultimately, rather dull.
With one ear kept tuned to the words themselves, one can still manage to follow the story’s main points. Such a willful dismissal of this production’s bells and whistles may seem ill-mannered. To salvage Havel’s play from the beating it takes here, however, feels like a worthy act of protest unto itself.
Protest by Vaclav Havel; translated by Vera Blackwell . Directed by Gail Humphries Mardirosian . Featuring Michael Crowley, Ivan Zizek, Sissel Bakken and Hanna Bondarewska . Music by Jerzy Sapieyevsky. Set design by Jonathan Rushbrook. Costumes by Sigridur Johannesdottir. Lighting design by Zachary A. Dalton. Sound design by George Gordon. Stage management by Jim Vincent. Produced by Ambassador Theater . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.