“Can this nation be the same one that until recently behaved so magnificently?” wrote Václav Havel, in 1978, in Czechoslovakia. That unnaturally relevant line is spoken by a character in his play Protest, currently being performed by the Alliance for New Music-Theatre. That is only one of many, many lines that will prove shockingly familiar for anyone who is concerned about the state of our country. Especially if you feel you aren’t doing enough to help fix it.
Stanek (David Millstone) has invited his friend, Vanek (Drew Valins), over to his apartment to discuss certain delicate matters. Vanek is a writer and frequent target of the Communist Czechoslovakian regime’s enforcement and censorship, having recently been released from prison. Stanek is a writer, too, but one comfortably within the establishment and untainted by revolutionary associations. Yet he wants to do something, to do more, and he has some ideas of how he can help.
Václav Havel, who later helped lead the Czechoslovakian resistance and became the first president of free Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, inserted the character of Vanek into many of his plays as a personal stand-in. But Vanek is not his, or our, interest here: this play is all about Stanek. Which is not to say that Valins has nothing to do: his performance is rather a marvel of attentive listening and carefully absurd reactions.
He plays something of a straight man to Millstone, for it is Stanek who releases the full force of his brain upon the dilemma of the unproductive liberal. Stanek wants to assusage his guilt for not doing more to help the dissident movement. Stanek feels constrained by his position and is uncertain whether he does more good diving in or staying out of the fray. Stanek resents the moral purity of the freedom fighters and their “cynical appeal to [his] humanity,” but simultaneously regrets treating them like “a sort of service establishment for moral matters.”
Director Susan Galbraith’s work here largely lies in encouraging Millstone and Valins to do whatever they need to do to express their story, with just the gentlest touch of restraint. They freely address lines to us in their audience, as if we are the judging public. They hide under the table clownishly one moment, and the next shout at each other with genuine passion. They wander behind, around, and on and off the set.
Said set is nothing but a small platform with a table and two chairs, backed by Joey Wade’s projection of a posh apartment. (An ever so slightly off-kilter one, though: look closely at the mirror.) It is situated at the far end of a tunnel at Dupont Underground, a remarkable reclaimed space that previously hosted trolleys and a failed attempt at an underground shopping center. The long walk to the stage area and its small bank of seating (not for the narrow-shouldered) is lined with avant-garde artworks, remnants of DC’s past, and sculptural elements that might be intentional or might be accidental. It echoes thrillingly with Millstone and Valins’ voices.
closes May 21, 2017
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All of this, the set and the space and Valins’ steadiness, provides the ideal framing for the skewed humor of Havel. In a waterfall of words, he reveals us to ourselves with a laugh-inducing specificity. Millstone lets loose on the twists and turns of Havel’s logic, bringing to life all of Stanek’s defense mechanisms and convoluted self-justifications. He dodges in and out and around a thousand different devilish details, each one of them painfully familiar to anybody who has clicked a Facebook petition and doubted their own usefulness.
Any attempt to summarize the brilliance and absurdity of this presentation, which seems to leap out of the Communist past right into a modern living room, will fall utterly short, for every single sentence utterly nails another tiny aspect of our ridiculous moral universe. If you are happy with the state of the nation, you should probably stay away; otherwise, whether you be a Stanek or a Vanek yourself, you probably owe it to yourself to go and have the mirror held up to your nature a bit. It’s worth laughing at.
Protest by Václav Havel . Directed by Susan Galbraith . Featuring David Millstone and Drew Valins . Set, Lights and Projections: Joey Wade . Stage Manager: Duane Gelderloos. Produced by the Alliance for New Music-Theatre . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.