Audience / Protest
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
November 4, 2006
Audience, written by Vaclav Havel, was written in 1975, the same year I was born. Although that was more than 30 years ago, this one-act is as relevant today as when it was created, and as relevant to an American audience as to the original audience for whom it was written. Seeing it reminded me of the Patriot Act, the invasion of privacy by the government, and the government squelching political views it doesn't agree with.
The plot centers around Vaněk, a dissident writer who now works in a brewery, and his Brewmaster, who we find out through the course of conversation has been charged with snitching on Vaněk to the government. Their conversation begins awkwardly enough. Vaněk, new on the job, has been summoned by his boss for a little friendly chit-chat. The Brewmaster, whose priority seems to be drinking as much Czech beer as possible in the course of the day, begins with obvious questions about the wife (there is one) and kids (there are none), how it's going out there in the trenches, etc. The drunker he gets, the more comfortable the Brewmaster becomes with the more difficult questions, such as why Vaněk has opted to get work at a brewery and whether or not he plans to write any more plays the government wouldn't like. The government clearly didn't like Vaněk's other plays. At one point the Brewmaster even tries to sway Vaněk to snitch on himself by offering him a cushy job in the warehouse. Whether or not Vaněk takes that job, and what it will cost him, will determine exactly what kind of person Vaněk is.
I've always found Audience to be a bit too long, even though it's a short play to begin with. This is due to the fact that it's such a straight play, is of such a heavy political nature and consists solely of two-person dialogue, which is thoughtfully broken up in this version by awkward silences and the Brewmaster's myriad trips to the bathroom. Despite being very straightforward and hard to digest due to its overwhelmingly political nature, this version of Audience, based on a new translation by Jan Novák, is more refreshing than most. Novák's translation is modern and hip. It reminded me of what a difference a good translation can make.
The director, Edward Einhorn, is careful to not apply a heavy hand himself, and allows his actors to flesh out their roles, which they do nicely. I thoroughly enjoyed the performances from Scott Simpson, who plays a mousy Vaněk, and Dan Leventritt, who truly transforms himself into the Brewmaster. His Brewmaster is the one boss we've all had who was inappropriate in every way, yet who still managed to hold the upper hand. Who holds the upper hand at the end of this version of Audience was the only question I had. It's unclear whether Vaněk goes from mousy to conniving rat and whether the Brewmaster loses the upper hand to him.
If Audience doesn't satiate your need for political theater, stick around after a brief intermission for Protest, which completes this double-bill at the Havel Festival. Protest is another two-person play centering around Vaněk. This time, Vaněk has just been released from prison and has been summoned to the house of an old friend, Staněk, who lives in the lap of luxury complete with a beautiful garden, good cognac, and his freedom.
As in Audience, there is much beating around the bush before Vaněk's antagonist gets to the point, but eventually Staněk explains why he's asked Vaněk over to his lovely home in the middle of nowhere and far from government eyes. It's not far enough from government ears, though, and Staněk resorts to playing some nice elevator music over their intimate conversation when he asks Vaněk to help him stage a protest against the imprisonment of a folk singer who it turns out is having a child with his daughter.
Vaněk is not only on the same page as Staněk, he's in the next chapter, having written a formal document against the imprisonment and secured 50 signatures to support it. The only signature conspicuously missing—or, is it?— is Staněk's, who can't decide if signing the document is a good thing or not. By all rights he should sign the document—after all, the prisoner is the father of his grandchild. Yet, Staněk has achieved his cushy position in life by stepping on eggshells around anything the government would deem suspect.
Interestingly enough, Vaněk doesn't seem in the least surprised by Staněk's inability to decide whether or not to sign. I can't tell you the outcome because it wouldn't be fair to future audiences, but like me you'll probably arrive at the right conclusion before Staněk does.
Protest is so well written I felt like I'd seen it before, even though I haven't, thanks in no small part to Novák's masterful translation. The actors, Andy Paris as Vaněk and Richard Toth as Staněk, both are capable although they seemed much more comfortable with the first half of the piece than the second.
Throughout the play—it wasn't entirely clear to me why—the actors spoke through a microphone. It was as if the director, Robert Lyons, wanted to remind us "hey—we're performing!" It also seemed as though the actors weren't entirely comfortable with the mike or the idea of using it. Although I appreciated the attempt to do something different with Protest, I thought the piece stood just fine on its own.
Other details give a fullness to the overall production. Staněk's cream-colored zippy sweater (provided by Kanae Heike, the show's costume and scenic designer) is as warm and cozy as his position in life, and, up to this point, just as unmarred. The music Staněk plays on the recorder to mask his conversation with Vaněk is just the kind of music he'd have on hand for such an occasion.
The stage at the Ohio Theatre is enormous and deep. Unlike Audience, which takes place in a cramped little office, Staněk's living room encompasses the entire space. One of my favorite moments in Protest was when Staněk is talking—he does most of the talking—downstage and Vaněk is lingering by the window (beautifully lit by Maryvel Bergen) far, far upstage, taking it all in.
All in all, Protest is a nice complimentary bookend to Audience. It's interesting to see how Vaněk has faired since his days in the brewery. Something about the events that take place in Protest tell me he never got that cushy job in the warehouse offered to him by the Brewmaster.