OFF-BROADWAY (THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE)
The canniest anti-war play to be seen in New York these days is Colin Teevan's new adaptation of Jaroslav Hasek's 1923 satiric novel The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the Great War. Hasek made his case against the disastrous police state regime, bureaucratic bungling and war that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand every bit as tellingly but twice as amusingly as Erich Maria Remarque in his grim and melancholy All Quiet on the Western Front.
In Svjek (the name rhymes with cake) we have a classic but atypical clown, a conscript in the Emperor's army who survives the horrors of a world gone mad by clinging to an idiot's see no evil, hear no evil, grin and bear it mien. It is a world in which the idiot often makes more sense than his "wiser" superiors.
Stephen Spinella, who made his reputation with very different roles, most notably his Tony-Award winning Prior Walter in Angels in America, is a revelation as the endearingly clownish Svejk. His presence on stage is enough reason to recommend this production, but it's not the only one.
Teevan's adaptation is accessible and entertaining and the East European director Dalia Ibelhauptaite has staged it with an innovative flair that brings out the play's nihilistic dadaism, Kafkaesque absurdity and Brechtian bent for music (via thirteen Kurt Weill style songs composed by Lenny Pickett, with lyrics by Teevan ). In case my singling out Spinella sounds as if this is yet another play in which one actor plays all the characters, rest easy. There are a dozen other actors on stage, all doing first-rate work as they portray close to forty characters -- including a sleek cat and a hapless yellow canary.
Gideon Davey's scenic design, beautifully lit by Mimi Jordan Sherrin, is a character in its own right. A raised platform accommodates numerous trap doors which, as in many Shakespeare productions, send character popping out from the floor regularly. A large back panel reminiscent of a three-dimensional version of one of Franz Klein's black and white abstract paintings, also has two openings; one is a doorway that reveals constantly shifting images. To underscore the off-center, dadaist feeling, there's also a dining table, covered with a white cloth and set with plates and glasses. Though remaining somewhat askew, this table is lowered several times to evoke the more peaceful times of drinking beer at the Palivecs (David Deblinger and Juliana Francis). Other props include a typewriter for a character called the Footnote (Max Casella, one of only two actors besides Spinella playing just one role) who is the play's narrator and its soldiers' historian.
It's almost impossible to summarize the events that begin with Footnote's popping up from one of the openings in the floor to type his "footnote to the official history" of the events. Essentially, Svejk's journey through the slippery slope of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy's collapse is a bit like Don Quixote's quest-- except that the only mission of this self-described "official idiot" is simply to survive the surreal nightmare every day life has become. He survives, jail, murders, being sold from one master to another. Enough said, except to note that his nonsensical prattling infuriates all and most especially Lieutenant Lukas (Ryan Shively) to whom he pledges his allegiance. Yet, in the end, with death and destruction everywhere, Lukas looks to Svejk for solace and sees that a man able to view the shambles around them as just "a bit different from Prague" may not be such an idiot after all.
Shively's Lt. Lukas abplays the straightforward foil to Spinella's finely drawn portrait of a man who has you, like Lukas, unable to see the line between his being an idiot or a wise man. The ensemble handles the multiple roles without a missed beat. I was especially impressed with David Deblinger's segues from Prague burgher to caged canary. Chip Persons' numerous roles include the cat who swallows Deblinger's canary. Richard Poe is also excellent as a judge who appears regularly on an ingeniously added raised walkway, and also as a hilarious St. Peter. Juliana Francis deftly handles both the Virgin Mary and a prostitute.
While the program lists the titles for the bakers dozen of songs, this is not a musical. The songs simply fit and enhance the action like another form of dialogue.
As Mr. Teevan's program notes conclude between his production's London premiere in 1999 "our world has been turned upside down by an event more shocking than that in Sarajevo in 1915." It is indeed a tribute to Svejk's creator that we can laugh at his comic hero even as we're once again living in the sort of nightmare Footnote describes as "We have gone over the top. All hell is breaking loose."