– The Prague Fringe Festival (May 23 – 31) invites companies from around the world for their 9 day festival. Susan Galbraith and her Alliance for New-Music Theatre productions – Unveiling by Vaclav Havel and their original musical Havel Unleashed – seen here at Artisphere in May, performed in the closing week. Here is Susan’s report on the atmosphere and company member’s favorite shows. –
The Prague Fringe Festival is in its thirteenth season. Co-founders Steve Gove and Carole Wears, both originally from Edinburgh, home of the granddaddy of all Fringe festivals, have programmed in some fifty-five events in seven plus venues. By mid-afternoon each day shows are in full swing, bumping up against each other, typically in 50-minute slots. Changeovers are fast; shows tend to be loose and ranging in style, genre, and caliber. Audiences charge in then out, onto another venue. Many “fringers” also tear around to cram in as many shows as possible in between performing themselves. Snaking lanes of pedestrians criss-cross constantly, creating a kind of intense air-traffic control map.
The atmosphere is good; everyone’s energy is high. Late nights, everyone tends to end up at the cavernous, old cultural center, Beseda, recently subsumed by the Fringe, where people meet to talk, see cabaret performances, drink, and dance. This is where the real exchange takes place. We learn about each other’s work. Performers meet directors and explore future partnerships and collaborations. Experienced “fringers” compare this to other festivals, and the talk is “Edinburgh Fringe has become crammed and cutthroat.” Everyone here agrees that the support in this community of artists to artists from all over world is heartfelt.
Prague breeds theatre lovers and theatre goers. Against the magnificent backdrop of the city there is a sophistication and understanding of the importance of theatre. Let’s not forget that this is a country whose first president, Václav Havel, was first and foremost a playwright.
My colleagues in our Alliance for New-Music Theatre offerings, playing separately but billed together as The Václav Havel Project, and both as tributes to Havel’s legacy, prove to be some of the Fringe’s best supporters. These guys never seem to flag energy and interest. Head of this cheerleading band is Maurice Saylor, composer who wrote the music to our Vanek Unleashed. Saylor quickly has become everyone’s favorite and has shown up at every show it seems, always totally present, attentive, and vocally enthusiastic. Every theatre company would do well to hire Maurice as their shill, but I’ve learned his appreciation is genuine.
I called on these company members to relay their standout theatrical experiences in the festival.
Ron Heneghan, himself an accomplished Shakespearean actor, mentions the Prague Shakespeare Company’s production, an original rough-and-tumble twist on Shakespeare, The Murder of Gonzago, which tells the story of an itinerant group of actors imbedded in Hamlet who then perform at the Danish Prince’s request. He states that this original play was filled with sharp characterizations and a finale with all the actors killing themselves with hilarious commitment. He also feels that the soulful and sentimental musical epilogue was the highlight of the show, composed and performed by Prague Shakespeare’s resident composer Ed Kliman. Ron also selects Lingua Varia as a singularly eclectic piece. Conceived and performed by Finnish teacher Susanne Kass, the video, acoustic, and multi-media ‘happening’ explored the diversity of languages worldwide and uses the international audience to simple but dramatic effect.
Meghan McCall, the featured “Blonde Soprano” in our musical, whose glorious vocie and effervescent personality on and off stage have delighted everyone, has been impressed with the variety of work presented here. She has seen ten shows to date, but her favorite has been From Scraps. This theater piece travels through time as a young girl battles with her feelings of losing her grandfather and the relationship she had with him as a child. From Scraps is a true amalgam of art forms, including improvisation, puppetry, drama, comedy, music, and mask. The several children coming out from the show squealed that they loved it.
Alliance singer-actress Pamela Bierly-Jusino has stunned Czech audiences, who have seen in her performance an eerie reincarnation of Vaclav Havel’s first wife, Olga. Her stillness portrays Olga’s much beloved grounded personality then grows electrified as she morphs and moves slinkily across the stage with McCall and Heneghan as the voices of “self-doubt” in Havel’s head.
Both Bierly-Jusino and McCall sing the virtues of a show about the relationship between the visual artist Salvador Dali and Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. The young performers in Olé! pitch themselves with intensity and carry that energy all the way through the journey of this fascinating relationship.
Bierly-Jusino was also deeply moved by Harlem’s Awakening by writer Pepper Chambers, in an adaptation of her own novel that describes an African-American woman in 1945 living in the south. The author, character, and performer are one voice, offering a spare portrait of a woman of courage and tenacity, a young woman unable to accept the cards life has dealt her and instead feels charged with making her own way. The writer reads from her novel and moves from character to character, using the stage space in creative ways, but she is best when she relinquishes her book prop.
I would have loved to have seen A Special Day by acclaimed Mexican actors Ana Graham and Antonio Vega, a play based on a movie set in Mussolini’s Italy. The short excerpt shared at a Fringe gathering on Sunday, though just a tad off-putting as it was a short video promo filled with glowing critical quotes, showed this pair to have pulled off an extraordinarily polished show. Alas, the pitfall of Fringe scheduling where performance times conflict.
On the last night I caught a musical duo, guitarist and singer-songwriter Jamie MacDowell and beat-box artist Tom Thumb. Within the first minute I sat entranced and goofily grinning as a love-struck teenager at these two. What remarkable songwriting skill and delivery, what rich and varied sounds and counter rhythms all provided vocally by Thumb, and most especially what confidence, ease, and close working comedic relationship these two portrayed from the stage!
We’ve come a long way, our happy band, from that first Saturday, only a week ago today, where we stood in a square, overwhelmed and staring at the fancy shiny antique jalopies doing a bustling for-hire business, streams of tourists speaking over a dozen languages, and street vendors noisily plying their wares. I’ll confess, it provided a weak moment for me as I was quaking in my shoes, wishing I had the skills of a street clown, an illusionist, a stilt-walking acrobat – anything to draw in a crowd – as we were asked to busk our show against all this plus the pounding electronic sounds of a band backing a big rave taking place in the square’s center. It’s the nature of all things “fringe.”
Today (Saturday, May 31) we performed our last performances of Vanek Unleashed and Havel’s Unveiling. Soon sets will be broken down quickly, stages struck, and this community will dissolve and everyone go their separate ways once again. We take away good memories, satisfaction for jobs well done and well received, good theatrical and musical experiences, and especially good friends and high times.
Review for Vanek Unleashed:
The Václav Havel Project: Van?k Unleashed (Divadlo Na Prádle – May 29-31)
Apparently Havel’s works are rarely performed in the Czech Republic so hats off to this American company for producing this marvelous show. Who knew Havel wrote musicals? Well, he may not have intended this as a musical but it works brilliantly. Parts of the script are sung and the music really helps to define the characters. Van?k, Havel’s alter ego, is sitting in prison writing and is visited by his wife, an old actor friend, a beautiful dancer and the prison officials. Some appear to be real visitors, others fantasies. They berate Van?k, praise him, seduce and complain, offer advice and show their contempt. But no one is as critical of Van?k as he is of himself.
The play is very entertaining but also manages to convey the loneliness and the frustrations of being imprisoned. It is apparently based on Havel’s Letters to Olga. While trying to maintain his marriage, Van?k has fantasies of a beautiful dancer. His friend urges him to forget his principles and to get along in the world. Jailers spy on and torment him. It is not the image of a suffering hero but of a man in pain. The production is fast-paced, with the four actors playing a variety of characters. It also incorporates a variety of styles – music hall, opera, slapstick and even a silent movie chase scene. And all together it works very well indeed. A polished and professional show well worth seeing.