nytheatre.com review by Rachel Merrill Moss
April 16, 2011
"Make them laugh," Mr. M proclaims. "If I make them laugh they won't shoot." Whether naively optimistic or courageously foolish, the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre offers this particularly quirky tale of one man's attempt to find the power of humor in the face of adversity, in Mr. M, now playing at Theater for the New City.
Adapted for stage as well as directed by founder/artistic director Vit Horejs, Mr. M is Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre's dreamlike rendition of a Czech novel, Mr. Theodore Mundstock, by Ladislav Fuk. Set in 1942 German-occupied Prague, the play follows Mr. M and his fellow Jews as they await their summons to the concentration camps while rations and morale dwindle. The unstructured, somewhat nonlinear story focuses on Mr. M's preparations for his unthinkable but nonetheless impending concentration camp existence. With the help of his pet pigeon, Chickie, a variety of villagers, and his shadow-puppet conscience, Mr. M rigorously readies himself for his arduous journey—from modified jumping jacks to perfecting suitcase-carrying techniques to all manners of practicing optimism—often conflating his imagined practice-world with what little remains of the reality the Czech Jews had once known.
Though the play occasionally gets lost in Mr. M's boggled state of mind, his precarious world is often moving and magical. His staunch dedication to optimistic humor despite perching on the edge of a very dark precipice is indeed heartbreaking, and his half-Woody Allen, half-Buster Keaton antics can't help but be a bit persuasive, despite always knowing the inevitable outcome. Endlessly showcasing sleights-of-hand and little physical gags, ready to delight his German "audience" when they come to collect him, this fantasy world in which Mr. M resides is beautiful in its simplicity. If only humor could win out as Mr. M unabashedly believes it can, if only a joke could disarm more than just a frown.
Despite their company name, this particular production makes use of few puppet elements, though they are quite lovely when utilized (particularly a scene featuring mini-marionettes). The rolling, multi-functional set pieces and costumes, however, do amply fill the aesthetic bill. But the real show stealer is the fantastic Yiddish music throughout, admirably sung and curated by Adrienne Cooper. Her melancholic warble, though at times upstaging the production, effectively brings out the depth of the emotion present in Mr. M's equivocal existence, at once both humorously scathing and merely covering a too-tangible fragility with a brave face.
Pertinently timed to overlap with Passover and Easter, this time of reverence for remembrance, Mr. M serves the double purpose: it reminds of an atrocity not to be forgotten as well as gently prods us to remember the passions of humor and optimism whenever possible.