by Byron Woods
The death last weekend of Vaclav Havel reminds me that this region's last independent production of the Nobel laureate and playwright’s work took place 14 years ago this month. ArtsCenter Community Theatre mounted Tom Stoppard's translation of LARGO DESOLATO in December, 1997.
It wasn't just one of the best shows of that year; it was one of the strongest works this area has produced in any of the ensuing years. The only local staging of Havel I could find after it was an undergraduate student show at UNC's LAB Theatre in 2001.
If anyone’s wondering what we’ve been missing ever since, read on.
Below: a mixdown from two pieces I wrote on LARGO DESOLATO in 1997:
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Apocalyptic music from some forgotten 1950s monster movie blares into a darkened theater. Just as the audience gets a good case of the creeps, someone pulls the plug and the music grinds to a halt. The lights come up on a man in the grips of a terminal bad hair day inspired by comic great Stan Laurel, seated upon a sofa half-covered in olive-drab acoustical foam.
He stares at the audience. The audience stares back. After a moment, he agitatedly goes to one of six differently painted doors, looks through a peephole, and then puts his ear to the door.
That's it. The lights fade.
The scene repeats. Bad horror music, grinding halt, lights, stare, look, listen, fade. A third time through these paces, something different happens.
Funny? Undeniably. But the absurd opening to Vaclav Havel's black comedy LARGO DESOLATO bears a hidden barb in the joke. A dissident in a totalitarian state, where government thugs can knock on that door—or break it down—at any hour, would sooner categorize this simple scene as journalism, not paranoid farce.
These and other plot devices in LARGO spring from Havel's own experiences as a Czech theater artist whose political activism predated the Prague Spring of 1968. During 14 years of systemic intimidation, abuse and imprisonment under the regime of Gustáv Husák, it's telling that, after a four-year stretch in a labor camp, the first thing Havel wrote was this: a scathing satire about an intellectual anti-hero who once opposed a totalitarian government—but now finds himself very carefully counting the cost of further engagement.
LARGO’s themes include intellectual impotence, learned helplessness, betrayal, banality, and fear, which result in a series of artistic, emotional and creative blocks. From the historical evidence, it's clear: at that hour in the artist's life, such subject matter was very close at hand.
Everyone in Havel's farce looks to Leopold Nettles, an aging professor, for the answer, the next step towards freedom. The problem no one is willing to recognize in this darkly comic drama is that this rather terrorized old man doesn't know what it is—or even if he's remotely interested in taking it. Yes, Nettles once had a few words to say about freedom. Now, however, he finds himself with nothing to add to them.
That will satisfy no one in his immediate world, from mooching, self-styled representatives of a proletariat awaiting direction to a scornful wife (and her similarly scornful lover) who are convinced he's faking his indecision. An operative in the resistance, a disenchanted lover, and two strange agents of the state—none of these are pleased with the extended pause of a man who's not sure what to say next, or if he even has the courage to say it.
The point could be scarcely less veiled, or more autobiographical. The flesh fails, and those who demand a dissident remain visionary and true in the face of state-sponsored terror generally do so from an enviable distance. Once a writer is identified as the Jesus of Prague, it's an inconvenience to all concerned parties for him to suddenly turn human, or otherwise entertain second thoughts.
This courageous, ambitious production features Mary Ruth's awaited return to directing, and makes an eloquent case for her continued employment in that occupation. A uniformly strong cast includes an inspired Tom Marriott as the besieged Professor Nettles, with Marcia Edmundson as spurned and spurning wife Suzana, and Derrick Ivey as stylized lothario Edward. Michele Vazquez gives yet another notable performance as Nettles' lover, Lucy, while Jenifer Crowell and Carroll Credle ably define supporting characters as First and Second Sidney.
This show’s stylized and classical absurdism features imaginative costuming and makeup by Ivey and James Carnahan's allegorically pointed set of doors, barbed wire, and schizoid upholstery. That it gets any laughs at all out of its dark themes is a significant tribute to Ruth's vision and her cast's abilities.
Laughs are in abundance, but the humor is razor-sharp. Those in search of a light night out are cautioned to steer clear of this production. Those with more discerning tastes for sociopolitical satire, deftly directed and enacted, really shouldn't miss it.