by Vaclav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson
Directed by Jiri Zizka
Starring Victoria Frings, David Strathairn, Kathryn Meisle, Krista Apple, Janis Dardaris, Geddeth Smith, Luigi Sottile, Peter DeLaurier, Leonard C. Haas, Mike Dees, F. Murray Abraham, Jennifer R. Morris, Mark Cairns, H. Michael Walls, Mary McCool, Trevor Long
Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street (Broad & Spruce Streets), Philadelphia
production web site:http://www.wilmatheater.org/production/leaving
May 19, 2010 through June 20, 2010
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 19, 2010 [1st preview, opening May 26, 2010]
This production puts me in mind of Fishing With John (a short-lived premium channel quirky television show, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0139776/) and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (a long-lived quirky network television series, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062601/), and I’m not certain the references are intentional. Various homes in an unnamed totalitarian state are entered and vacated providing us with our central metaphor of the story. From the state-provided “villa” housing where the play takes place to a woodshed downstage left where naughty indiscretions occur to cyber relationships that provide one character comfort to discussions of off-stage evictions and deportations, our characters are arriving and leaving throughout this play. This is a world in transition that explicitly references King Lear and The Cherry Orchard in the text, and more recent cultural creations in production. And to cap it off, an authorial voice is actually given voice at key plot junctures, or just to inject funny business. And it was for me a fun house of empty humor.
Political leader Dr. Vilem Rieger (David Strathairn) of an unnamed state has been deposed and his entourage, including incompletely described family members, needs to make choices to survive. Mother/”Grandma” (Janis Dardaris) knits and asks questions; daughter Zuzana (Victoria Frings) swings on a garden swing, taps on her computer, and talks on her cell phone; daughter Vlasta (Jennifer R. Morris) visits with her silent husband Albin (Mark Cairns) and attempts to get father to sign some papers which he never reviews (and the papers are never explained). Rieger’s long time companion Irena (Kathryn Meisle) is subservient but conniving along with her intensely attentive maid/servant Monika (Krista Apple). A visiting tabloid-ish reporter interrogates, and a purported pretty girl political groupie Bea (Mary McCool) seduces first Rieger and then his political successor, providing one of several metaphors for fluid political loyalties. Household members include an aged servant Oswald who always knows precisely what everyone wants, presenting wine or tea or beer even before requested (played by veteran Geddeth Smith), and a political sycophant, and a number of other political characters illustrate that yes, there has been a change in power and yes, this family is under seige. And then the through line is undercut by the disembodied voice of F. Murray Abraham who muses (as the playwright? as the director?) about issues such as whether a scene should be played a certain way, or in general about character exits and entrances, with frequent non sequiturs. This is the connection to John Lurie’s fishing series, with a similar disembodied voice that would make random commentary including my favorite during a sequence in an ocean fishing ground: “Pablo has artificial legs but no feet”. In the Fishing With John sequence there is no Pablo and no context for such a comment. This is humor perhaps, but such humor wears thin after a few iterations. And this play repeats such moments over and over and over.
Direction by Jiri Zizka is not very creative. Other than the “characters in doors in the wall” motif used scattered through the play’s two acts, and the final images of all characters placed in doors across the walls of the stage culminating in Rieger’s final exit — movement of characters on the stage is stilted, static, semi-circular posing … almost never crossing regions in a single stage picture … always upstage or down stage or mid stage clumps. And characters freeze when the off stage voice comments on their behavior, or asks them to read their lines differently. The audience member, after two hours of these visuals, is stunned into silence.
Sound design (Nick Rye) has entertaining elements. In the beginning, at random interludes, and at the end there are strains of hard edged, structured classical stringed instrumentals, punctuated by country bird-in-tree chirps. And of course we have a thunderstorm. Set design (Klara Zieglerova) is full of pieces of a world in upheaval (piles of luggage, saw horse tables) , and a few uses of overhead rain apparatus that serve to clear the stage a few times and to evoke Lear’s crazy-ass mad scene. The most prominent feature of the set is the sequence brightly colored doors — suspended, hung, installed, randomly placed. Three stories of doors on the three walls of the proscenium stage. Before the play began, seated before this set, I scribbled notes about being reminded of the joke wall used at the end of Rowen & Martin’s Laugh-In pastiche political humor show from which ensemble members emerged, doors swinging, to talk to the standing hosts and to tell vaudeville-inspired, often political quips during the final minutes of the show. And this is indeed how the doors are used throughout the play for random entrances, exits, sudden pronouncements, and the final posing location for each of the many actors to stand in silhouette, representing — something. The final image of Rieger exiting into a “Get Happy” sunset illuminated sky of shadows through the two story set of doors upstage is — easy, superficial, perhaps unearned.
There are social and political metaphors here, and reflections on social and political dynamics — who makes the decisions in bureaucracies? How do families function and how layered are the family secrets? All these questions are entertaining and important. And this play in this production does not finally allow for examination of these themes. Some lovely individual performance moments are overwhelmed by the vaudeville of the direction (which could have used a bit more energy and less snark) and the script which just felt relentless.
[25 May 2010 NPR piece on the author and the production:
© Martha Wade Steketee (May 21, 2010)