Source: DS Theatre Scene / www.dctheatrescene.com / By Keith Loria /
Václav Havel was a renowned politician who went from political prisoner to serving as the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the country’s dissolution three years later, who then became the first president of the Czech Republic, serving from 1993 to 2003.
But in addition to making history as a pioneer in government, Havel was also a very prominent playwright, often using an absurdist style to criticize communism in his works. One of his most famous characters is named Vanek and Alliance for New Music-Theatre will present The Havel Project, a double bill of Havel’s Protest and an original work, Vanek Unleashed, written and directed by Susan Galbraith.
“The two shows show two aspects; the struggle inside the individual to live in their whole truth—to stand up and understand what it is to build moral character in slippery times,” Galbraith says. “Along with that, the call to find one’s strength to stand up to tyranny.”
She describes Protest as “exposing a society under a totalitarian regime that spies on its citizens and the thin line between acquiescence and culpability, between comedy and creepy terror.
“It’s one of my favorite of Havel’s plays.. It has so much punch in a very short amount of time, and it’s really about two friends who meet and each wants something from the other. And the play turns on what their want is and both characters in a way are exposed. It’s a stunning drama on how easy it is to go down a slippery choice of collusion, and showing not doing something is also a choice.”
Alliance originally produced Protest in 2017, with Galbraith taking the show underground in the Dupont Underground, the first-ever staging in the alternative space—an abandoned street car station below Dupont Circle.
Andrew Valins returns to the role of Vanek, which also features David Millstone as Stanek.
“When we did this two years ago, we were literary building the risers so we could have a small audience and there were almost no lights or electricity, but we just did it anyway,” she says. “We had to build a theater without destroying the continuity of the space itself. There’s still a track there, there’s still not water coming down there, and we are very much of support of making this a cultural venue.”
Being in Dupont Underground is an important part of the experience and Galbraith is thrilled that these works will be seen in this space. “The integrity of the space, which I first saw about 10 years ago—totally raw, totally in the dark with flashlights—it’s like Berlin after the wall came down,” she says. “Havel’s works were forced underground for 20 years so this is the perfect show to open our season.”
Alliance for New Music-Theatre is the Theatre-in-Residence for Dupont Underground. Programming there is ideal, she notes, and is something whose challenges and opportunities any director would love to tackle.
“It would be criminal, very hard and stupid to carve it up into ‘boutiquey’ this or ‘boutiquey’ that; it’s a space that begs to have people experience performances and artists who imagine different kinds of performances in using the totality of the space,” Galbraith says. “We’re not using the totality of the space for this, but we are piggybacking with the World Press Photo Exhibition, which is going on simultaneously.”
And by serendipity, the Dupont Underground theme this year is diplomacy, which plays into Havel’s history and legacy.
Following its first run at Dupont Undergound, Galbraith brought Protest to the Prague Fringe Festival in the Czech Republic.
“This year, they asked us to do Protest again, because it is the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution—the bloodless overthrow of the Soviet machine, which Havel helped orchestrate,” Galbraith says. “Because we are primarily a music company, we wanted to do more than that.”
In May of 2014, Alliance for New Music-Theatre first produced Vanek Unleashed at the Artisphere venue, followed by another trip to the Prague Fringe Festival. And Galbraith wanted to add that to the performance, so they completed the piece and decided to pair the two shows up.
Vanek Unleashed borrows its performance style from both the American musical and silent screen comedy.?
“We knew it would help Americans understand some of the in-jokes and some of the self-references in the play Protest,” she says. “One of the things that has been written about Havel’s plays is making absurdism be about something politically.”
Composed by Maurice Saylor, Vanek Unleashed is an American response to Vanek. Playwrights Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard have paid tribute to Havel by making Vanek a universal character.
“Vanek Unleashed, while very silly, with lots of clowning and music, the story has, at its heart, Havel’s time as a political prisoner,” Galbraith says. “It was his artistic imagination and his hope of whether things would change or not. He was a very compassionate man and I think the play shows that.”
Editor’s note: Susan Galbraith is at home in many theatres, covering operas, plays and music festivals for DC Theatre Scene.