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Ambassador Theater Protest

By • Nov 25th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Protest by Vaclav Havel; Translated by Vera Blackwell
Ambassador Theater: (Info) (Web)
Flashpoint-Black Box Theater, Washington DC
Through December 15th
65 minutes without intermission
$35/$20 Seniors, Students
Reviewed November 23rd, 2013

The Cold War and the Berlin Wall have disappeared from the front pages. They are no longer recent memory. The Ambassador Theater has brought back those days of duplicity and intrigue when East and West meant the Soviet Union and the United States were at odds. The time is the mid-1970s. And the production is Protest a probing work by Czech playwright and often jailed dissident Vaclav Havel, who later with the break-up of the Soviet Union, became Czech Republic President.

Protest is a compact production with a script built around self-deception and the power of language to confuse in a very murky world. It is built around characters representing two poles of how people can react to artistic censorship and cultural oppression. It is a small-cast, rather literary work in nature, rather than an action adventure. It has calibrated arguments as the weapons of choice.

Havel’s work paints a world composed of two stark opposite positions; either dissident or compromiser. He raises question to ponder. Who can you trust when your own freedom is at stake? What will you do to survive? How far will you go to prevent the loss of your own livelihood, or a risk a prison term for speaking out against the State?

For the Ambassador Theater, Protest is “an indictment of individuals who refuse to protest corrupt political systems and collude for their own personal advantage.” Protest is a pocket-sized, 65 minute intermission-less event that begins with a dissident (Vanek played with cool, upper-class manner by Michael Crowley) who returns home from prison after a protest against the government. Vanek is called by an old friend (a slimy, nervously talkative Stanek played by Ivan Zizek). Stanek is a compromiser who has much to lose including a well-off life.

Director Gail Humprhies Mardiosian has added theatrical flair in her chess match conception for the play. She has brought a twist by including two female “counter egos” to the Vanek and Stanek characters. There is an icy cool, inward-looking Sissel Bakken as Vankova, the counter ego to Vanek and a boundlessly animated, outward-looking Hanna Bondarewska as Stankova the counter ego to Stanek.

With the Ambassador staging, the audience becomes a witness to a duplication of dialogue delivered by the various female and male pairings. It is a deconstruction of the text and reconstruction. It asks if there is a substantive difference with a gender switching of roles. Or is it just unnecessary confusion?

The production pivots on what is to be done for a jailed young musician who has connections to the compromiser Stanek/Stankova. How far should someone go to help; sign a public protest document that risks negative consequences?

The set design by Jonathan Rushbrook immerses the audience into the production as eavesdroppers. There are 15 or so small round tables in the intimate Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint. The audience is in a low ceiling underground café where political debates are thought possible without prying eyes and ears.

The set has an alley down the middle on which the characters pass, bumping into each other. At either end are risers where much of the narrative of the play transpires. Over time the swiveling needed to keep up with the change of direction of the action and dialogue was disconcerting even with Zachary Dalton’s helpful lighting.

Music by Jerzy Sapieyevski is a score with electronic synthesizer. It is a key ingredient to the production’s overall experimental styling. And playwright Havel was known for his interest in music as a subversive device. And as aside, with the recent death of Lou Reed the media made mention of Havel’s interest in Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and the term “The Velvet Revolution” for the Czech actions against the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s.

Protest is fascinating, but it may not be for everyone. It may have greater allure for those with awareness of Vaclav Havel’s remarkable life and his development as an artist and a dissident. It will also be an attraction to those with a historical absorption with the Cold War.

But then again, as one of Havel’s Protest characters suggests, “The more you’re exposed, the more responsibility you have towards all those who know about you, trust you, rely on you and look up to you, because to some extent you keep upholding their honour, too!” Those are timeless words not connected to a particular time and place.

Note: For mature audiences. The performance of Protest is part of the Mutual Inspirations Festival 2013, celebrating Vaclav Havel’s life and legacy as a former president, playwright and human rights advocate.

Cast

  • Vanek: Michael Crowley
  • Vankova: Sissel Bakken
  • Stanek: Ivan Zizek
  • Stankova: Hanna Bondarewska

Technical Artisans

  • Directed: Gail Humphries Mardirosian
  • Music: Jerzy Sapieyevski
  • Set Designed: Jonathan Rushbrook
  • Costumes: Sigrid Johannedottir
  • Sound Design: George Gordon
  • Light Design: Zacarhy Dalton
  • Stage Manager Jim Vincent
  • Technical Director: Joseph Walls

Disclaimer: Ambassador Theater provided a complimentary media ticket to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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