"Isn't this a very formal norm?""Actually, it's a very normal form."
When you hear that, you might be forgiven for thinking you've arrived in the realm of Lewis Carroll or Dr. Seuss. You'd also be wrong. The Garden Party takes place in Czechoslovakia, circa 1963, as interpreted by Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who, after some time in prison, became the Czech Republic's first president. Presented in a double bill with the short puppet-play The Mistake, The Garden Party opens the Havel Festival, a series of plays and lectures commemorating Havel's present residency in New York and his 70th birthday.
In The Garden Party, young, introverted chess whiz Hue Plume (James Bentley) shares his house with silent, parlor-dissident hippie brother Mark (John Kohan) and their zany, toadying parents (Michael Marion). Hue plays chess by moving the pieces on one end of the board, then switching chairs and playing for the other side. He's adept at switching viewpoints as needed. "Not so good, Dad—it sucks," he comments; then, switching to the other side of the board, "Kicking ass, Mom—checkmate!"
Dad sends Hue to an office party at "the Downsizing Office" to network with a family friend, who is evidently a neighborhood bully who grew up to be a paid bully. At the party, Hue meets Frank Slug (David Nelson), a member of the Speakers Bureau, who has come to assure the workers that they had better be enjoying themselves.
Nelson absolutely steals the show. A jumpy, zany actor, he screeches most of his lines, and his style suggests Alan Cumming. Bentley provides a strong contrast, giving an understated, deadpan performance while delivering his nonsensical dialogue at a rapid-fire pace. Before long, Hue is using his chess skills to climb the dizzying heights of communist bureaucracy—taking the audience along for a hysterical tour.
The costumes, designed by Meredith Neal, combine 1950's kitsch with Alice-in-Wonderland colors and crinolines. The knee pants and stockings of the bureaucrats make them resemble 18th-century courtiers, which may be the point.
The set, by Heather Wolensky, is pure domestic realism, and there is a bit too much of it. It includes a shaky iron gate that remains onstage during the indoor scenes; chairs that turn into trees once branches are planted in them; and a large painting of what appears to be Havel that Mark inexplicably paints right in front of his parents' noses.
The creation of a chessboard using a gobo-fitted light is creative, but an extremely long set change is required between the last two scenes, which the audience must watch from the seats because the Brick Theater has no lobby. While the set was being changed, I heard at least five loops of the recorded music, which, while charming, quickly became monotonous.
The piece's greatest strength is Havel's wordplay, in Jan Novak's new translation. The dialogue appears to have been updated, as the characters read e-mail and mention Ray Bradbury's anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451. However, from the creativity-deadened characters' mixed clichés ("If you can't stand the heat, no use crying out a river") to a very funny sequence in which two frightened bureaucrats trade repetitive banalities with the threatening Slug, Havel's nonsense sounds timeless. "Today it is action, not words, that speaks volumes," one character declares. It will have to be, when routine and fear have so paralyzed the speech of even the experts from the Speakers Bureau.
The Mistake, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky, is a funny, then chilling, vignette of life in prison, here adapted as puppet theater. An unnamed prisoner makes the "mistake" of taking a morning smoke, which is distinctly against protocol. His cellmates attempt to teach him the rules, but he refuses to accept or acknowledge them, or even move. Then things get disturbing. It's a short but effective parable about how people who have given up resisting conformity are threatened by someone quietly doing what Havel has called "living in truth."
Puppetry has a long and healthy history in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, and has often been used to convey social commentary and satire. This puppet show, however, was rather wooden. Until the final moments, the puppets merely shook their arms at each other; two were inexplicably tied together back to front, and the puppet representing the silent rebel was conspicuously attached to the puppet stage by a stick. The moment of violence was flimsy and excited neither fear nor pity. The dialogue, voiced by Joe Beaudin, Daryl Brown, and David Nelson, would have made a powerful radio drama.
It is wonderful that the Brick, in tandem with the other Havel Festival venues, is presenting all of Havel's plays to American audiences. The full list, along with a timeline and other useful materials that add context, are included in the festival program. Havel's words, when active, definitely speak volumes.