Svanda Theatre has journeyed to Washington from Prague in a residency that includes ‘Four Plays from Prague’ in repertory – works that confront us with difficult periods of history when humans were challenged to break out of complacent living, “just getting on” with one’s life. These plays ask us questions about the way we live now. How do people survive atrocious times? How do we live at peace with our own conscience if not by standing up to power? How do we then extend the transformation of selves to the world around us?
These questions are as important in the current Czech society as they are for us here in America.
Coming in off the streets into the cooled Devine Studio Theatre on Georgetown University’s campus, we are met by what looks like a barbed wire fence between the downstage playing space and the audience. In the dark, names are read off. They are Czech names, first read by a male and then a female voice joining in the transmission. The list goes on and on, overlapping names becoming garbled and sent up like smoke into oblivion.
When the lights do emerge, they are mostly but pinprick spotlights, coaxing two figures out of the dark to tell their stories. The characters never interact; their alternating words nevertheless make for resonant connections – words of place – Terezín, Auschwitz, and words of feelings – shock, fear, and (most curiously) exuberant joy and humor, the last showing the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. But we are never left to forget there is a barbed wire fence between them and us the audience, between them and freedom.
We are at the first play in the series presented Thursday evening, The Good and The True, focuses on that terrible 20th century chapter of history where millions, including tens of thousands of Czechs, were murdered. As history ticks on, there is ever more urgency in getting down the stories of remaining survivors of the Holocaust not to lose precious history and to preserve these stories for the world to remember.
There have been other plays about the Holocaust, why this one? And what makes it different and compelling? For me it was, firstly, in its approach.
Director Daniel Hrbek, Managing Director of Svanda Theatre, and who was inspired both to shape and direct this work based on meeting two survivors, was most concerned about the issue of manipulating drama and “making theatrical” painful personal and family histories. He has a personal stake in the period, having lost most of his family during the Holocaust. (Before the war 118,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia, most in Prague. Approximately 80,000 of them died in Nazi death camps.)
He found his source material going through archives of the Svanda Theatre where he came across the journals of one of the actors who had been part of the company. That person was Hana Pravda. Hrbek journeyed to England to meet with Hana and knew that he wanted to put forth her story. It was only later he met Miloš and saw his journey as having connections and resonances with Hana’s even though the two never met.
Hrbek felt it essential to avoid theatrical manipulation of character relationship and dramatic dialogue and instead chose what is almost anti-theatrical, a theatre that translates into one of transcription or theater of testament. He speaks of the work’s spare style as giving “service to the voices.”
The play was first produced in Prague with Czech actors in the original Czech language of the characters. But in preparing it for English-speaking audiences, Hrbek went to England where he happened to find Hana’s granddaughter, who it turns out is also an accomplished professional actress.
Instead of purely translating the work, he decided to redevelop the play from scratch with his two British actors. He had a hunch he would find new layers, stories, and authenticity, especially with Isobel Pravda, the granddaughter. I believe he has done just that. The power is in the details.
Saul Reichlin and Isobel Pravda maintain their distance from each other on stage, honoring Hrbek’s required style, and directly address the audience in a mostly stripped-down, flattened delivery, as if reading from documents. Occasionally, they step into another character’s shoes in their separate narratives and create alternate voices. Each of them picks up and acts out a scrap of stage business – walking on a ladder to suggest railway ties, miming carrying heavy loads in their work camps, and hiding behind a stage-prop trunk in a perilous escape.
The work is at its best and most original when we catch glimpses of the youthfulness and exuberance of these two characters who survived. Miloš is the proud and physically strong goalie on a football team in Terezín. As he catches an imaginary ball or discovers his old jersey, we see the years and bad memories of the camp melt away. His eyes light up, it’s his passion and the energy of being part of a team that helped get him through. For Hana, it was also a passion and a dream – of performing and being part of a company. The strikingly beautiful actress Pravda also lights up, and her facial expression shifts quixotically from clowning one moment to being determined, defiant, and brave the next. In these moments, their characters stories are well-matched.
Reichlin, with a career steeped in Jewish theatre, has that ease in certain inflections and thickening consonants, so that his performance possesses a special authenticity, as someone from another world and background. Pravda, coming from another generation and professional training in one of London’s leading acting schools, sounds as if she has stepped right out of a Jane Austen Masterpiece Theatre event (and her bio suggests she has had this line of casting success.) I thought her sound appropriate for her actress-y character.
Pravda winds her way through every beat of the play with conviction and clarity. Reichlin seems to stumble occasionally in the considerable mass of text. Or, perhaps, the pauses and blank stares may be the work of an older character with faulty memory, who with a glassy stare is trying to recover his lost self.
I have mentioned that these two find their fun and the humor in their characters’ stories. But there are also telling moments of abrupt darkness, where it’s as if a mask falls. In one instance, Pravda starts to tell a story and abruptly breaks off. She can’t or won’t go there. Reichlin’s character meets his sweetheart from the camp after the war at the railway station. He can’t hide his shock or the pathos, seeing the broken spirit she has become and stands helpless, teary.
The show’s lighting design by Jirí Šmirk, maintains a flipped-on-then-off rigor throughout, and though at times it felt relentless, ultimately I found it an effective metaphor for the shards of history on which were “shown a light” then forced back into the shadows. The sound design by Stanislav Halbrštát was most effective, especially its use of Jewish folk songs and other music that served as welcome interludes between scenes and emotional counterpoint to the stories.
I am anxious to take in the other shows offered this weekend by Svanda Theatre.
There is Protest, a most powerful work by the remarkable playwright and former President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. It can and has been produced in so many ways and also blends humor and darkness, when two friends, both former dissidents, meet in one’s apartment and must confront the truth of their very different responses to power and the regime.
Finally, Svanda Theatre presents Prankrác ’45, a work that takes place in the famous prison of that name. It is based on the post WWII history of the incarceration of five women during the country’s period of ethnic cleansing. The work explores the relativity of guilt and responsibility of ones actions.
Svanda Theatre of Prague – The Good and the True. Testimonies by Hana Pravda and Miloš Dobrý and compiled by Tomas Hrbek, Lucie Kolouchová, and Daniel Hrbek. Directed with Set and Costume Design also by Daniel Hrbek. Original Lighting Design by Jirí Šmirk. Original Sound Design by Stanislav Halbrštát. With Saul Reichlin and Isobel Pravda. Produced by Svanda Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Davis Center, Devine Studio Theatre
September 21 at 8 pm
September 22 at 4 pm, followed by a talkback
September 22, 8 pm
September 23, 2 pm
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