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Wenceslas Square


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Body Politic Theatre

In January of this year, internationally renowned Czech playwright Vaclav Havel was arrested in Wenceslas Square along with 1,400 others for participating in a memorial-protest demonstration. The memorial service was in honor of Jan Palach, a young student who, in 1968 on that site, set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet invasion. By arresting Havel, the Czech government illustrated the late Larry Shue's point even more succinctly than his play Wenceslas Square does. Once the Czechs were passionate and headstrong; now they must whisper their political sympathies if they are to survive. Larry Shue's play is one man's discovery of that truth. His portrait of oppression is not shocking or revolutionary. It makes no political statement that we haven't seen many times over. But it is truthful and heartfelt, and doesn't pretend that it's more than it is, a haunting personal memory.

The autobiographical Wenceslas Square is based on a trip Shue took to Czechoslovakia with Dr. Nicholas Howey. Some details have been changed for dramatic purposes, but the whole thing smacks of remembrance.

The frame of the play centers around a narrator who tells the story of an adventure in Czechoslovakia in his younger days. The narrator portrays all the men that his younger self meets. This younger self, Dooley, is a student at a small midwestern college who befriends a rowdy and wild professor of theater. The professor, Vince Corey, had been in Czechoslovakia during the time of the invasion and watched the blossoming of the theater community as the artists responded to the crisis. It affected him so much that he wrote a book about his experiences, based on a series of interviews. Vince is now returning to Czechoslovakia--five years later, book completed and ready for publication--to verify those interviews and find out what has happened to the artists since then. His book, he hopes, will take him out of the dull college job he's in, lift him to exalted heights of theater scholarship, and let him live the life he wants. He asks Dooley to accompany him and take pictures for the book.

During the course of their visit, it becomes screamingly clear that things have changed drastically in the country, and, as a result, in the theater community. They dress better, eat better, are more Westernized--and are very much more frightened.

Dooley serves as an outside eye, much like his own photographic equipment. During his one solo venture, a walk through Prague during which he gets lost, he encounters one of Prague's lost souls, a street person who spouts poetic apocalyptic visions in English. During the course of the play, the bum is discovered to be one of Vince's old friends, formerly one of the best and brightest of the theater community, now forced into the alleys because of his political outspokenness.

Ultimately Vince must confront the dangerous effect his book's publication would have on the lives of his Czech friends and weigh that against the opportunity the book could give him. In a brief but poignant climax, Vince resolves the situation through a desperately sad chance encounter with his unfortunate old friend.

This Body Politic production includes the director and two actors from Wenceslas Square's world premiere, which was performed here in 1974 as part of the Chicago Theater Project, under the guidance of Larry Shue. Just as Wenceslas Square is a gift to Shue's former teacher, this production is clearly a tender memorial to Shue from those who knew him. Their motivation and the author's work hand in hand to present a quietly funny and loving rendition of the play.

Gary Houston's characterization of Vince Corey, the wild and woolly professor, is both familiar and charming. He is a typical wisecracking, witty extrovert, who always lives for the moment. For Houston's Vince, this delightful characteristic is also his fatal flaw as he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the obvious changes around him. Houston has some trouble with Vince's final moments, but the rest of his performance is so thoroughly engaging that it doesn't matter much.

Larry Brandenburg is dazzling as the voice of the grown-up narrator and all the Czechoslovakian men. He delineates his characters clearly and intelligently, infusing each with a distinct personal style and rhythm. My personal favorite was his portrayal of the one Czech actor to achieve "success" under the new regime, who knows that his work is worthless and lets most people know about it. He alone recognizes the situation they are all in, plays by the rules, but still manages to be true to himself.

Dooley, as played by Jeffrey Hutchinson, is the least filled out of the characters, his part being that of a passive observer. Nonetheless, he endows his observer with a true ingenuousness and sense of growth that make him a delight to watch.

Maureen Gallagher, playing all the women, does the weakest work. Most of her women are fundamentally the same, and none go beyond stereotypes. She does her best work with the tough old alcoholic bird who develops a crush on Dooley. This character is written more broadly than the others, and Gallagher has fun with its outrageousness. Her other women all have a controlled harshness that makes it difficult to distinguish between them.

Tom Mula's direction lacks fire; he's opted instead for an underlying gentleness and compassion. As a result, the play says less about oppression and art than Shue seems to have intended. But the characters are rock solid, and pull the audience through the rather long evening. Lighting designer Michael Rourke, scenic designer Brian Traynor, and sound designer Jeff Webb all work together to create simple but distinctive environments, each having a slight tongue-in-cheek flavor. Costume designer Kerry Fleming makes more obvious choices, but her designs, while not exciting, are always appropriate.

I have a feeling that Wenceslas Square was a bit more passionate the first time around, and people who saw that production may be disappointed by Mula's temperate approach. Speaking as a first-timer, though, I can only say that I'm glad to get a chance to see this loving production of an interesting play from a playwright who had far too short a life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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