DCTS writer Susan Galbraith returns to the Prague Fringe festival with Protest by Vaclav Havel, produced by her company Alliance for New Music-Theatre.
Prague is a city of rooftops and spires. The terra cotta tiles stand out against the deep blue skies of this unseasonably hot May weather. The cobblestone-lined streets quickly train the unseasoned tourist to climb up the steep hill to the castle where I believe the Rolling Stones still pay the electric bill for its illuminations in a country which “only very recently had behaved so magnificently.” That line, from Havel’s play Protest refers to the atmosphere, which, for a short time at least, seemed realized by one of the major architects of the Velvet Revolution who would become its first president.
Times have changed. The republic’s new leader, like America’s own, has taken a turn to the right, and Russian businessmen and investors are gobbling up the once anti-totalitarian landscape.
I had come to see if political resistance is alive and well. Would the Prague Fringe, now in its sixteenth year, reflect some of the seismic shifts that have taken place globally, or would its radical statement be one more Dadaesque –giving the middle finger in anti-establishmentarianism? Is the only response demanded one of absolute ridicule? Or are the stakes too dangerously high? Prague Fringe seems undaunted.
I’ve also come to catch some stand out shows.
A man shuffles onstage in his bathrobe. His sunken cheeks, hooded dark eyes, and beaky face create a solo portrait that is both majestic and terrifyingly predatory. Yet as he starts to speak he seems very much like us. He loves music, enjoys nature, and yearns to hold his children. He also feels he is the man to restore pride to his country. The man is Rudolf Hess.
Derek Crawford Munn, the brilliant actor who delivers Hess, Michael Burrell’s impeccable drama about Hitler’s Deputy, draws us into the man’s world, building the tension inexorably until, lathered up emotionally, he is screaming into the night with the madness of a hater. Then, almost in the next moment, he stares aghast with the memory of being shown the faces in the concentration camps (and remember, this German was out of the war relatively early, bailing out of a plane in Scotland long before the Final Solution.) With his haunted eyes and mouth a gaping black hole lit in a red light, he seems reduced to one of the victims. Hess would spend over four decades in Spandau as a prisoner in solitary and the staged character asks us, the audience, if we consider ourselves more civilized than his Reich to issue this lingering death as punishment to a soldier. If he is being asked to face the consequences of his actions and choices, mustn’t we also face ours?
Hummingbird, like the preceding show, came with much buzz from its success at the Edinburgh Fringe. What I had caught in previews suggested something quick, light, and bright-winged like its name. I was ill-prepared for two young Scots and a Frenchman delivering a story taken right out of the heartland of America, a story of a young couple on a killing spree that bore some resemblance to the classic film Bonnie and Clyde. This story was imparted with few words and a combination of dance, mime, acrobatics, and the performers animating objects like a hat, dress and shoes to create secondary characters.
I initially thought “how curious,” and indeed “it shouldn’t work,” and yet, there was something very fresh and truly organic in the way these three performers worked as an ensemble. I became totally enthralled with their ability to deliver both character and plot with something that resembled sleight-of-hand magic. “How quick bright things come to confusion” might be said of this young couple whose fortunes led them into a rampage of murders and then to the electric chair. Startled further by learning that “Hummingbird” referred to the sound made by this grizzly machine.
If Hummingbird resembled a delicate beating heart hiding a horrible gash in American history – state-sanctioned violence in the death penalty, and Hess seemed a diamond – a glittering hard brilliance etched into the brain of a Hitler-loving deputy, then Henry Naylor’s Angel exploded onto the stage like a roadside bomb.
In the few minutes at the start of the show before the emotional bomb went off, I remember I was analyzing the play, defining its genre (story telling,) and wondering why the impressively strong young actress Avital Lvova seemed to deliver all her lines flat and at top speed, almost automatically like a machine gun. Then something hit me, and I felt myself being torn open in my center. Sitting in the dark, I noticed hot tears falling from my eyes onto my clenched hands.
Then I believed utterly that Lvova was Rehana, a woman around whom a whole mythology has built up in Syria, a young girl raised to study law and who enjoyed western music and other freedoms in her family and farm community until ISIL came. Then she became a sniper who, in the siege of Kobane, was said to have killed over 100 members of ISIS. Her marksmanship is surpassed only by her courage and ongoing resistance. The myth suggests her spirit is being passed along.
The play is a testimony to the many women in the region who have defied traditional roles to become warriors. Naylor has created a brilliant work, and Lvova fulfills her role with a fierce power that will be unforgettable. Director Michael Cabot has honed an electrifying piece of theatre, and no one should miss the next collaboration planned by these three extraordinary people of theatre.
Last year this time, Alliance for New Music-Theatre had made no plans to return visit to Prague Fringe, but over the summer, the company was tapped to present something for the Embassy of the Czech Republic as a celebration of what would have been Václav Havel’s 80th birthday to a special delegation from the Czech government. After a few “apartment performances” of Havel’s Protest, we might have put the project to bed. Who would have known between September 2016 and January 2017 the world would have veered so far in a new course? An invitation from Dupont Underground to perform in their subterranean cultural space as theatre in residence gave us the idea to remount the production as a preview to another Prague Fringe adventure.
It seemed important that in both Washington and in Prague, audiences might ask the question,
Václav Havel, where are you now?
Our company performed in a new venue for the Fringe, a small space underground that looked like a wine bar designed and decorated by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Our two actors, David Millstone and Drew Valins, were so tall that occasionally their heads got scraped by the chalky stone arches.
The Fringe reviewer Michael Calcott wrote, “This is a wonderful production that seems to revel in the intimate and appropriately underground space. The simple story has Havel’s remarkable combination of humor and terror: two men who have known each other for years come together, each wanting something from the other. One is a dissident and the other a successful writer who is cooperating with the Communist regime. There is a strained and almost baroque dance between the two that changes suddenly into sweet harmony when it seems that they are both going to get what they want. And then the resolution collapses into a crescendo of self-loathing and jealous rage. The two never seem to be engaged in the same conversation, their words having completely different contexts. The two performers, David Millstone and Drew Valins, are outstanding. Millstone dominates the stage, moving from extravagant host to fawning supplicant to raging beast. Valins has the Havel role as his mirror opposite, wary, reticent and confused. It is not often that you get to see these works performed, and I would urge you to see this production. I think Havel would approve.”
One of the highlights of the run was hearing the gasps at Havel’s prescient lines. One night sitting in the second row was Dr. Martin Palous, an early signer of the Charter 77. From the stage, Millstone, not realizing this, nonetheless pointed to him appreciatively as he looked over the stage list of Charter signees. A moment of inspirational serendipity. Another night in the audience was Petr Janurek, Havel’s almost constant companion and videographer for the last several years of his life. Janurek is seeking funds to finish his documentary film on Havel. They both gave the show high marks.
Fringe never pretends to avoid major bloopers and obscenities. It wouldn’t be Fringe if individual performers and companies didn’t take risks. That might come out in the philosophical push to put on a bit of Fringe in the first place, an attitude summed up in the line that I quote verbatim, “We’re just here to drink a lot and have some fun.” It might be stated as a “lifelong dream” of a certain performer to pull down his pants in a public building – and proceeded to do just that, once in the English Ambassador’s garden and again on the last night celebration of Fringe. Or it might just leak out in one of those awkward works stuffed with pretentious poetry, the kind of thing mocked by Madame Arkadina regarding her son’s writings in Chekhov’s Seagull. I caught just such a “leak” in one show: “Her voice tasted like watercress and buckshot.” The show was as confusing and opaque as this simile.
There was also plenty of female raunchiness, comedic stand up solo works and teams (headed up by the perennial Fringe favorite Men with Coconuts,) and over the top send ups. A few of the family shows were truly charming. So there is something for everyone, and it is a delight to meet returnees who’ve come from great distances to enjoy and support the Fringe each year. Once again, I felt the very special energy at this Fringe festival, where co-directors Steve Gove and Carole Wears make it a point to welcome and lovingly support each and every group and venue (For Carole that meant seeing personally over 40 shows in nine days.) That’s a lot of amore.
Prague Fringe ran from May 26 – June 3, 2017.
Interested in attending next year?
Watch for the announcement at Prague Fringe.