The scene: A round table discussion about Czechoslovakian president and playwright Vaclav Havel, in preparation for the Performance Network's production of "Largo Desolate."
The cast, in order of appearance in this discussion:
Phillip Kerr, director
Jeni Dahlman, playing Lucy
David Wilcox, playing Bertram & 2nd chap
Chris Sulavik, assistant director.
Q: Why present Havel?
Kerr: His work, although not widely known in this country, has been important to cutting edge theatre. "The Memorandum" was done by Joseph Pap shortly after it was written, at the Public in New York. It won an Obie. We are not talking about obscure work. We are talking about a man who is very much in our consciousness, politically and artistically. Very important.
Q: "The Memorandum," also by Havel, was produced at Performance Network in July of 1990. Is there a correlation between the two productions?
Kerr: The two plays came from very distinct times in his life. "The Memorandum" was written in the late 1960s. It's an early play, but it has a lot of bubble to it. "Largo Desolato" was written almost 20 years later. Although it is deeply humorous, and propels one forward, it isn't quite so hopeful. 20 years later is a very different time in the author's life.
Some of the events that pertain to the narrative of the play are that Havel had been incarcerated, but possibly more important, that he had been accused on more than one occasion, and then charges had been indefinitely postponed. If you think about it, that could be a very powerful definition of Hell, certainly for a creative spirit.
Q: What intrigued you about this project?
Kerr: I have to go back to when I was a working actor in the sixties. I was in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," by Torn Stoppard, who I think is a brilliant presence in American and British theatre, with great dexterity and reverence for language. That play meant a great deal to me.
I knew Havel related to Stoppard, but I had not had the opportunity to see his work. When this play was presented to me, I immersed myself in writings by and about Havel. It had a rather overpowering effect, because you cannot read anything about Havel, cannot read anything by him, cannot know anything about him, without finding him compelling and engrossing.
One aspect about Havel's writing which Stoppard mentioned in his introduction to "The Memorandum" is the magnificent freedom of his imagination. That came up in a compassionate piece that Arthur Miller wrote in 1983, entitled "I Think About You A Great Deal." Miller said that a powerful imagination had been denied its flight. As a director, that imagination excites me.
(Enter Dahlman, Wilcox and Sulavik.)
Kerr: Havel went to prison for crimes that don't exist in our society, like "intellectual hooliganism."
Dahlman: Because he was speaking in his writings,articulating thoughts. He went to prison for having thoughts.
Kerr: The role of the artist was one of the few in which people could communicate. There was something hidden and secretive about it, which is foreign to our society. We go to the theatre to escape, to be entertained.
Dahlman: He used theatre to induce catharsis, under the guise of "This is just my imagination." And it worked, that's the wonder!
Wilcox: Growing up in America and seeing American politicians, everybody is so polished and smooth. It's amazing to watch Havel because he's such a real person. He's this short little man, with a little belly on him. He doesn't take care of himself. I saw a student press conference, recorded on a little video cam. Havel sat down in an easy chair and they just asked him questions. They had to comb his hair for him and stick his collar back inside his sweater. He had no prepared statements, no cards to read from. They asked him questions. He would hem and haw a little, then he would answer.
Sulavik: What I always wondered about Havel was why he stayed in Czechoslovakia. He could have easily defected. Other writers did, and did very well financially. He was denied a college education. He accepted his prison terms. He didn't run. Leopold, the central character in "Largo Desolato," is the same. He doesn't run. He doesn't lie.
Performance Network and Dawn Treader BookShop will present "Largo Desolato" at the Performance Network, November 14 through December 1. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 pm and Sunday performances are at 6:30 pm. There is no show on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28.