Some may know Václav Havel for having been a political dissident, some recognize the name for his years serving the Czech government; but theater lovers associate the man as being one of Europe’s most well regarded playwrights of his time.
To celebrate the man and his work, Alliance for New Music-Theatre will present The Václav Havel Project, a double bill that pairs his most popular play, Unveiling, with the world-premiere of Vanek Unleashed, a uniquely crafted companion piece of original music-theatre by DC’s own Maurice Saylor and Susan Galbraith.
“We did Unveiling last September as part of the Mutual Inspirations festival sponsored by the Czech Embassy, because the director, Mirenka Cechová, had worked with us before and did some work at American University and choreographed for me at another show,” Galbraith says. “I was an actress but hadn’t been on stage for 15 years. It was only one act and a few nights, so I said I’d do it.”
Unveiling dramatizes an evening when a dissident playwright visits his old friends, a married couple, in their recently re-constructed apartment that they are about to unveil, only to discover that they’ve grown worlds apart through the choices they’ve made and the values the couple now espouses. It’s a play that shifts constantly between comedy of the absurd and something searing and even terrifying at times.
Little did Galbraith know that the play would be so well received that it would live on——first, the company performed at the Czech ambassador’s residence, then it was invited to stage the production in New York last fall, and most recently, it was extended an invitation to take part in the Prague Fringe Festival this May.
“We felt that was a great opportunity and we shouldn’t pass it up, so we decided to mount it again before bringing it to Prague,” Galbraith says. “At the same time, I realized that a one-act show—something under 50 minutes—isn’t easy to sell in America. I thought, ‘what if we devised our own little response of entertainment to Havel and his central character in Unveiling and put another show on?”
The result was Vanek Unleashed, described as an “absurd musical fantasy in one act,” which explores Vanek struggling with issues of the slipperiness of identity as he careens imaginatively between prison and the more terrifying and absurd world outside.
“What we’ve done is place the Van?k character in prison as a political prisoner so it’s quite a bit like Havel in his situation,” Gailbraith says. “What I’ve penned is he uses his artistic imagination to not only survive prison but escape and move through a life journey, with people in his life and aspects of his life to amuse and entertain him. But like anything dream-like, they can sometimes get out of hand and turn into nightmares. It’s really a dream-like prelude to the other play.”
The idea of using a Havel character in a new work is nothing new as both Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard have incorporated the playwright into their works, but Galbraith drew inspiration from an unlikely source—the American silent film era.
“I wanted it to be American and have a particular spin and I thought what was most recognizable were the American musical and the silent screen comedies and great clowns,” she says. “There was a silent film guy named Harry Langdon, who was like Charlie Chase, Charlie Chaplain and Buster Keaton but less known and they said of him, ‘he’s like a man fallen to Earth without a set of instructions.’ That’s very much like the character that Havel penned as almost an alter-ego of himself.”
The second component of Gailbraith’s idea was to make it into a musical and after seeing a concert by Saylor, she knew he was the perfect person to collaborate.
“He is just a very entertaining and inventive musician,” she says. “I went to hear him in concert and found it very cool and funny, and he used lots of toy instrument and curious blends, and I knew I wanted to work with this guy.”
Unfortunately, the trip to Prague won’t be able to accommodate the seven live musicians that Vanek Unleashed requires, so they are going to use recorded music, and will be practicing with it for most of the Alliance for New Music-Theatre run. The show will, however, have live musicians playing on its first two nights (May 7 and 8) as a special treat for theatergoers.
For those unfamiliar with Havel, he was a true renaissance man, having been a successful playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and strong politician, serving as the ninth and last president of Czechoslovakia (from 1989–1992) and the first president of the Czech Republic. He was the mastermind behind the bloodless Velvet Revolution.
In doing research for her new musical, Gailbraith uncovered a great deal about the man and his writings.
“I knew the contour of some of the major events of his life. I knew he was a playwright and prisoner because when I was a young actress in New York at the Public Theater, Milos Forman tried to get him out of prison by producing one of his plays,” she says. “I knew he became president, but I had no idea the extent of his philosophic writings. I was so touched by how honest he was in his struggle to come to terms with what he believed in and what he could say. Some of that is in this little show we devised.”
The Vaclav Havel Project will be produced at Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre at 1101 Wilson Blvd., in Arlington from May 7 to 18. Details and tickets.
Rehearsing the music for Vanek Unleashed, part of the Vaclav Havel Project
Note: In addition to being a producer, actress and member of Alliance for New Music-Theater, Susan Galbraith is also a writer for DC Theatre Scene.