Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Havel Collection: Intro to Leaving

I have seen four productions of Leaving, with four different directors, in three different countries.
For a play this new, that leaves me in rare company. Two were in English (one in Philadelphia, one in London), and two were in the Czech Republic (one in Prague, one in Brno). But each production gave me a unique perspective on the work, a perspective which deepened with each successive viewing.
I have another, personal connection to Leaving. Vaclav Havel wrote some of it while he was in New York, attending Untitled Theater Company #61’s Havel Festival, which I curated. The festival included every play Havel had ever written, and I see tiny elements of all of them within its text. Another, even more personal connection: a very small, very offstage character is named after me.
 So of course, I have no choice but to love the play, for those reasons alone.
But it is a difficult play. To me, Havel’s life and his full body of work are an ever-present prelude throughout. The main character, Rieger, is obviously yet another imperfect mirror of himself, much like Vaněk or the host of other Havellian leads from his previous plays. Which is not to say Rieger is Havel, that sort of reductionism serves no purpose but to satisfy amateur psychologists who want to see the play as a method of self-analysis (true perhaps, but also a common truth about most art). The essential characteristic of Rieger is that he is a once great political leader, now fallen.
An understanding of Havel may be necessary to understand the true tragedy of that occurrence. The typical Havel play, whether it be The Memo or Largo Desolato or Garden Party (aka Office Party) has as its protagonist an idealist who, in the course of the play, is eventually stripped of all his ideals. They are a warning about the slippery slope that one can follow just by allowing small lies into one’s life, one by one. The plays may attack Communism, but the target of their fiercest satire is the dissident who rationalizes himself into a state of capitulation with the state.
 In Leaving, Rieger is the state, and although he lives in a post-Communist era, he has clearly rationalized himself out of his original ideals. We never see him as the idealist he once was, though we hear of it. Instead, we witness his slow downward slide, with his ascent being an assumed event.
For Czechs or others who know Havel well and associate Rieger with Havel, that period of idealism is assumed. For those new to Havel’s work, the task of deciphering Leaving may be more complex.
Herein, of course, lies the director’s task, the task of interpretation. Each production I saw was interpreted vastly differently. They interestingly took on the characteristics of the director or the city around them. In London, the play felt like it could be a political drama on the BBC. In Philadelphia, Rieger had the dissolute feeling of a once-respected member of congress now plagued by scandal. The Czech versions had a more intellectual bent to their portrayals and veiled references not only to Havel’s personal history but also to his sometime political rival (and successor as Czech president), Václav Klaus.
The more I watched, the more I realized I preferred the interpretations that took a step away from reality. Leaving can feel deceptively realistic, but it is important to remember that Havel wrote in the absurdist tradition. The stylized repetitions, the direct quotations from Lear or The Cherry Orchard, the voiceover of Havel’s authorial musings, they all are an extension of a very particular tradition. Integrating that all into a single style may be a difficult task, but fortunately, we have the example of Havel’s previous work to guide us.
This all presents a challenge, an exciting one for a director to tackle. I have seen that challenge met in very different ways (I deliberately avoid direct evaluation, knowing some of the artists involved). If I should ever direct Leaving, it will be my job to solve those problem for my particular production.
But for now, I think it is better to end my thoughts in a Havellian way, not with an answer, but with a question.

Monday, November 5, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Audience

Dan Leventritt, Václav Havel, and Scott Simpson after Havel visits the performance of Audience at the Havel Festival

I have directed Václav Havel’s play Audience twice.

The first time was as part of a double bill, which included Slawomir Mrozek’s Striptease.  It was my first production in New York, and I was not only director, I was stage manager, set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, tech crew and  box office.  The second time was as part of the Havel Festival, and Havel himself attended.  The first time the translation was by Vera Blackwell, and I had found it in a big stack of Samuel French scripts and taken a liking to it, somewhat at random.  The second time the script was by Havel friend Jan Novák, who had been commissioned to translate all of Havel’s Vaněk plays for the festival.  The first time we averaged about eight audience members a show.  The second time we had a relatively full house every night.

Both times, the Brewmaster was played by Dan Leventritt, who seemed to me to be made for the part. Dan’s performance in 1992 stuck so strongly in my memory that I knew I wanted no one else to play the part in 2006.

Audience, for those unfamiliar with it, is a two-hander that introduced the character Vaněk, an alter ego of sorts for Havel.  Like Havel, Vaněk is a playwright who is forced to work in a brewery because the government has declared that he can no longer work as a writer.  I have written a little about the character in my essay that introduces the book The Vaněk Plays (you can find that essay here)

When I first directed the play, I was new to New York. I borrowed money from my father and brother to rent a black box theater for two weeks, but had no money for any other aspect of the production.  We rehearsed Audience in Dan’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where I and the actor playing Vaněk, Moni Damevski, crowded in around a small table.  Fortunately, a small table was about all the play demanded.

Simultaneously, I was directing Striptease with an actor I knew from college, Jason Katz (who now uses the name Jason Harris), and an actor who had appeared in my New Jersey production of Artist Descending a Staircase, Peter Brown.  Both became good friends.  They were game enough to follow me into a little empty space I found that seemed unoccupied, somewhere in midtown.  After a couple of rehearsals, we found out why it was abandoned, when men in protective suits came in and told us they were there to remove the asbestos.

The set included a table (which I found in the theater) and two freestanding doors.  I created the lighting on my own one night during what I loosely called “tech week,” running between the light boot and climbing up ladders to approximate some very basic cues.  I recorded a toilet flushing and used some Michael Nyman music as our only sound cues, except for the mixtape I made for preshow and intermission.

A day before we went up, there were still no doors.  The morning before the first performance I called my friend Mike Nuzzo.  “Can you please help me?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, always game to assist.  “Maybe tomorrow?”

“Curtain is in eight hours,” I said.

He drove in from New Jersey with two doors, and with the help of a little wood from Dykes Lumber, we somehow got them to stand.  When the actors arrived at 6pm, they expressed surprise that we had been able to set up the doors at all.

My brother David, who besides being our major funder/cheerleader was a stagehand/puppeteer for Striptease (there were two giant hands that needed manipulation), came in and learned his part in the hour or so remaining.  Then we opened.

Fourteen years later, at the Ohio Theater, Václav Havel sat in the audience and watched Dan and our new Vaněk, the wonderfully talented Scott Simpson, perform the show.  Afterwards he congratulated Dan and Scott, and I introduced him to our terrific stage manager, Taylor Keith, and the rest of our staff.

It was another small theater in New York, but it was a long journey between the two productions. And I am proud to say, Havel was pleased.