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Beate Hein Bennett
Karen Bardash

Beate Hein Bennett

About the “Vanek Principle”
Vaclav Havel

Sept. 1 – 4, 2022
Presented at Bohemian National Hall, 321 East 73rd Street, NYC
In collaboration with the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation
Produced by Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre
Thurs. – Sat. at 7:30 PM, Sun. at 4 PM
Gen. Adm. $20, seniors& students $14,
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, September 1, 2022

Vit Horejs as Vanek, Theresa Linnihan as The Brewmaster.

For the past 30 plus years, the Czech-American Marionette Theatre has delighted audiences with inventive versions of traditional folk material and original plays. This time for only four performances, CAMT presents a play by none other than Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) who, besides having been one of the foremost Czech playwrights, was also the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 when the country was dissolved into two republics. Vaclav Havel, having been a dissident was declared public enemy #1 under the old Communist regime and spent multiple stints in prison. (Tourists can now rent his prison cell for a sort of “airbnb” stay.) His various experiences as a dissident intellectual, a persona non grata, hounded by the secret police found their way into his plays, notably the trilogy of one-acts called The Vanek Plays, all of which were created in the mid-1970s during the height of the repressive Communist regime put into place after the Soviet invasion of 1968. In an essay from 1985, Havel tells that these plays were originally created as entertainment for his fellow writer friends, such as Pavel Kohout, Pavel Landowsky, when they got together to read their works to each other. Kohout, Landowsky, and Jiri Dienstbier with whom he shared prison time, wrote also Vanek plays around the same dramatic character. In that 1985 essay, Havel talks about the “Vanek Principle” as a kind of dramatic trick by which Vanek becomes the catalyst whose mere existence provokes the environment to expose itself.

“Audience,” the first in the trilogy, takes place in a brewery. The central character, Ferdinand Vanek, loosely based on Havel’s own experience of working in a brewery, is invited by the Brewmaster to a “friendly” glass of beer and conversation. Throughout the play Vanek says little but as the Brewmaster gets drunk, he reveals more and more of the real conditions that both are living under. There is much humor in the absurd situation, whereby the one who is presumed to be in control loses all control over himself while faced with Vanek’s meek yet stoic behavior.

The present production by CAMT is quite elaborate in that it involves live actors, puppets of various sizes handled by the two actors, two video screens that at times project a large version of the live action and of the ingenious central part of the set, the interior of a barrel scaled for the puppets as well as for the live actors; Vanek had rolled the barrel laboriously onto the stage at the beginning of the performance. The production design is by Alan Barnes Netherton. Various brewery worker marionettes, seen in the video of a cross section of the miniature brewery, were created by Milos Kasal and Jakub Krejci. At the downstage edge sits Kika Von Klück manipulating the video interventions that magnify the live action; dressed in a black coiffed wig and black trench-coat, she is a kind of spymaster “Natasha” who follows the onstage proceedings with her video cameras, thus evoking the ever-present “security police.” A brief pre-show video, created by Suzanne Halsey, provides a historical background with snippets of political and cultural events in Czechoslovakia, beginning with the 1968 attempt at reform under Dubcek cut off by the Soviet invasion in August 1968, the subsequent hardening of political conditions in the 1970s, and clips of the popular singer Karel Gott singing a Czech version of “roll out the barrel."

Brewmaster (Theresa Linnihan) is found in beer barrel that Vanek (Vit Horejs) has wheeled onstage and opened.

Of central interest, of course, are the performances and puppet handling of Vit Horejs as Ferdinand Vanek and Theresa Linnihan as the (nameless) Brewmaster. Vit Horejs, the founder of CAMT, translated the play and directed the production. Theresa Linnihan created also the Vanek and Brewmaster costumes and puppets. It is hard to imagine a more ingenious rendering of this play than CAMT’s. Horejs’s mournful Vanek countenance and quiet monosyllabic answers while he handles the small Vanek puppet, seating him on top of or inside a regular liter sized glass beer mug, creates a sense of horrific metaphysical absurdity—Vanek has been diminished but he is there--whereas Ms. Linnihan’s Brewmaster is a study of pathetic vulgarity mixed with a dangerous under-current of cunning manipulation; as s/he gets progressively more beer drunk and monopolizes the dialogue, shambling every so often off-stage to pee—it is a built-in repetitious scene break—she returns after every pee-break with a bigger Brewmaster puppet until at the end the puppet is bigger than the actor. In his speeches he also becomes progressively more frustrated with Vanek’s passive resistance revealing also his resentment about being nothing but a cog in a terrible political system that is built on social distrust and personal destruction. The two actors with their puppets on strings embody literally their entangled situation in this dangerous mind-numbing “brew” of a political system that operates by insinuation, rumor and manipulation. The interfacing of the enlarged video image as a surrogate for as well as a reflection of the live action with the actual live performer, and the strung-up puppets functions not only as a rich aesthetic theatrical process but, more importantly, it becomes a metaphor for life under a totalitarian system. [BHB]

Karen Bardash

Václav Havel’s “Audience”
A masterful production experienced simultaneously in three ways.

September 1 to 3, 2022 at 7:30 pm and Sept 4 at 3:00 pm
Bohemian National Hall, 321 East 73rd Street, NYC
Presented by: the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre in association with GOH Productions and Václav Havel Library Foundation.
Tickets:  $20 gen. adm. $14 seniors & students (includes $3 towards Ukraine humanitarian relief)
Info and reservations: https://audiencebyhavel.brownpapertickets.com
Reviewed by Karen Bardash, September 4, 2022

Vanek (Vit Horejs) uncovers Brewmaster (Theresa Linnihan) in a barrel.

In his life, Václav Havel wore many hats: that of the intellectual, the playwright, the political dissident, the prisoner, the elected president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the country’s dissolution in 1992, and again from 1993-2003 as the first elected president of the Czech Republic after the fall of communism. At one point he also worked in a brewery.

“Audience” is a short autobiographical absurdist comedy that explores the time when Havel was forced to work at the brewery. The title suggests the weekly audiences that the main character, Havel’s fictional alter ego Ferdinand Vanek, has with the Brewmaster, his foreman. The dialog is circular and scene after scene seems to repeat, a la Groundhog Day, but the production value entails so much that the audience cannot help but remain focused.

“Audience” unfolds in real-time on three simultaneous levels. It begins with Vanek, (Vít Horejš) rolling out a barrel, which he sets upright and opens, parting it into two hinged halves. From inside the barrel, the Brewmaster (Theresa Linnihan) spills out along with a small panel of switches that activate, among other things, a surveillance camera focused on the barrel, within which are a mini-set of the spaces within the brewery and various mechanized dolls. These figures are set in motion with the flick of one of the switches upon the mention of their characters’ names. The four images filmed by the surveillance camera are projected onto a large screen that fills the left side of the stage. In front of the stage sits Kika Von Kluck (live videographer) who works another video camera tracking Vanek, the Brewmaster, and their marionette likenesses. This video is projected onto a screen behind the actors to the right. The audience is, in fact, watching a single play in three ways, acted by two talented actors, their puppet doubles, and via the live video projections of all four. What a visual treat!

Watching a single play three ways

When we first meet the marionettes, they are of equal size and very small in contrast to the large glass steins of beer which feature heavily throughout the 60-minute play. Each scene finds a reticent Vanek answering his boss’ redundant/mundane questions with as few words as possible, while the latter chugs multiple mugs of beer and Vanek abstains as best he can. A class distinction is drawn. Vanek is an educated intellectual, unlike his foreman, a boisterous working man, a self-described “brewery schmuck” who comments, “Why aren’t you drinking? Sipping wine is more your style, I suppose.” “Christ almighty on a stick, you’re sipping that beer like it was Chartreuse?” By not enthusiastically partaking, Vanek shows a quiet unwillingness to join the system in which his boss is stuck, unhappy with his lot, passed over for another job, and forever imbibing because “It’s kinda like, you know, a tradition.” More likely, the excessive drinking is a means of escape from the repetitive reality of the Brewmaster’s life even as he constantly tells Vanek, “don’t be sad.”

Each scene ends with the Brewmaster (puppet and puppet master) comically shuffling off the stage to use the bathroom while Vanek spills his beer into the other’s empty glass. With each new scene, the marionette of the Brewmaster grows in size – as if to exert self-importance over the underling whom he resentfully admires. Ultimately, he is depicted by a larger-than-life puppet strapped onto Linnihan’s body, a grandiose vision of a character who ultimately explodes in an expletive-filled self-pitying breakdown. This occurs when Vanek rejects the idea to use his talents as a writer to report on himself to the secret police. In a soft voice he offers, “please don't misunderstand what I'm going to say but I just can't... I can't inform on myself... … it's the principle of the thing!” To that his boss rants, “Principles! Sure you fight for your shit-ass principles …. but what about me!? ….Where’s my life? What about my future?” For Vanek’s linear life there is a future that sadly the Brewmaster can’t imagine for himself.

Giant puppet of Brewmaster

In the final scene, it is Vanek (Horejš) who returns to the stage with a larger marionette of himself and he hands his foreman (Linnihan), now calm, the original small Brewmaster puppet. The ending of the play is confusing, but then again, is that not the intent of absurdist humor which is intentionally illogical?

Confusion aside, the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre offered an afternoon of entertainment that brought laughs to the audience that filled Bohemian National Hall theater. Director and actor Vít Horejš’ subtle, staid interpretation of Vanek wonderfully contrasted with Theresa Linnihan’s loud, unhinged portrayal of the Brewmaster, and both actors channeled their energies through the strings of their marionette counterparts in a way that made them come alive with the same nuances. Whereas it might seem onerous to concentrate on the actors vs. the puppets vs. the screens all at once, this was not the case. “Audience” was a truly cohesive production that was enjoyable on every level. [KB]


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