In the category of "people who should've won the Nobel Peace Prize but didn't," the late Václav Havel (1936-2011) looms large. Havel — who passed away in December with relatively little fanfare — was the first president of the Czech Republic and one of Europe's great dissidents and freedom fighters, imprisoned by the Communists on multiple occasions. Besides his political legacy, the intellectual Havel was also an acclaimed poet, essayist and dramatist who long ago learned that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Havel's 1965 play The Memorandum clearly reflects the writer's familiarity with the stifling bureaucracy and deceptive double-speak of totalitarianism. ACT 1's new production of this rare dramatic exercise is quite entertaining, featuring strong performances and well-paced direction by Wilhelm Peters, though it does tend to run on at times.
Havel's setting is a nondescript government agency in an Iron Curtain country. Uniformity is the order of every day — though somehow Aaron Beck's boxy set design has a mint-green coolness that almost belies the boredom. Heck, even a Western bureaucracy can seem dully regimented — a place where everyone excels at avoiding work and looks forward only to their next smoke break or lunch. (Or, in the case of one secretary, an almost ritualistic glass of milk.)
The director of the agency is Mr. Gross (Joe Shepherd), whose day is interrupted when he receives a memorandum written in Ptydepe, a "synthetic language" that is somehow being foisted on the workforce by powers unknown. Gross seeks out someone to interpret the memo, only to find that no one is authorized to do the translation.
Meanwhile, courses in the language are being taught on site — though the students are mostly mannequins — and in the midst of the linguistic confusion, Gross receives a sudden demotion, then is fired, then is rehired, all the while lugging his fire extinguisher with him throughout the office complex. (It seems everyone has his/her own fire extinguisher — sort of like a work ID.)
Havel's script cleverly satirizes the stultifying nature of busywork, while also using the Ptydepe gambit as a vehicle for drawing the line between majority rule and mob rule.
Somehow Havel's hero finds his civic courage, and in so doing, Shepherd makes his ACT 1 debut a worthy effort. He's a likable presence with an appealing Everyman energy, and his character is charmingly unflappable in the face of the dizzying maze of bureaucratic imperatives.
In fact, director Peters has filled his cast with a raft of ACT 1 first-timers, including Kris Wente, Brittany Paul, Christopher Crouch, Jennifer Bennett, Terra Buschmann and Jenny Crawford, who all bring the company a fresh look and valuable performances. Also in that mix is newcomer Emory Colvin, who stands out in the role of Alice, a lower-level functionary who emerges as the play's love interest.
More familiar faces include Bob Roberts, whose portrayal demands almost complete silence all night long, and Billy Rosenberg, in the choice role of the Ptydepe teacher, whose serious-minded rap and ridiculous rear-screen projections epitomize the playwright's mockery of soul-sucking statism.
Havel's script successfully sustains its gamesmanship well into Act 2, though momentum begins to flag as we await the pleasant conclusion. But Peters' smart direction manages to hold our interest for most of the journey.
Love's labors lost
Street Theatre Company's new mounting of Jason Robert Brown's two-person musical The Last Five Years is distinguished by the casting of relative stage newcomers, both of whom are products of Belmont University's ever-burgeoning voice program.
Kacie Phillips and Ryan Greenawalt are appropriately cast as the modern lovers — he a self-absorbed novelist, she a needy actress — whose marriage goes south. Their raw emotions are expressed via playwright/composer Brown's succession of creatively crafted songs, ranging from upbeat blues to fairly complex ballads with almost operatic narrative weight.
Phillips is a belter with solid control at all tempos, and her range is impressive. Greenawalt sings with absolute confidence at a high volume, yet he brings a curious, somewhat awkward energy to his performance.
Of equal interest, though, is the work of musical director/pianist Rollie Mains and his band (bass, cello, violin and guitar), who find much beauty in the complexities of the score's arrangements, which are more sophisticated than the average romantic musical.
Andy Bleiler's set design is simple but neatly hints at the passage of time through a calendar-and-clocks motif.
Sometimes the difficulties in staging a two-person show seem evident in Lauren Shouse's direction. While the stand-and-sing style might be inevitable when you have but two performers essentially trading off solos, there are nevertheless some physically static passages. The integration of text, song and movement mights have been stronger.
The Last Five Years runs through May 27 at 1933 Elm Hill Pike. It continues one more weekend with this cast — then real-life husband-and-wife Cori and Tyson Laemmel take over for the final two weekends.