Havel Jollies Along Fish and Audience Alike

In the Loeb Experimental Theater Experimental Theater

The Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater recently garnered acclaim for being the first Boston theater troupe to stage any work by playwright Vaclav Havel since his election as Czech president. While the selection of Increased Difficulty of Concentration is indubitably indicative of the group's political savvy, it is even more indicative of its good taste.

The work is fast, funny and damnably clever. Set behind the Iron Curtain in 1968, Increased Difficulty of Concentration, plays game with perception, chronology and language, and is classic theater of the absurd. The simple repitition of dialogues, even entire scenes, lends Havel's glimpse behind the curtain an acuity. The work is frequently and charmingly inscrutable; there are several inexplicable and subtle wardrobe changes between scenes.

Havel's creative script is not wasted on director Orion Ross. Ross molds the play into a dimension not only of sight, but of sound. The play opens with China Forbes off-stage, singing in her clear, strong, beautiful voice, while John Ducey and Blake Spraggins bumble about in pantomime as social scientists Karel Kriebl and Emil Machal. And in the first true scene, Ross creates a breakfast interlude in which the clanking of silverware, plates and glasses speak as much as the characters at the table.

Off stage, Ross's direction is helped greatly by sound orchestrator Sonya Raminsky, who masterfully handles the effects and lends her domain an air of theatricality equalling that of the stage itself. The beeps and blips belched by social science computer Pazook are wonderfully hilarious, and Professor Huml once recieves a phone call from what appears to an adult emigrant from Charles Schultz's Peanuts series.

The schizophrenic action of Increased Difficulty of Concentration centers around the befuddled Professor Huml (Tom Hopkins), Eddy to his lovers, of whom he has many. He is a lascivious chap, and most of the supporting cast is women with whom he is, or wants to become, involved. A central theme of the work is his diminished genius as a result of his numerous involvements. But his genius seems magnified by comparison when a bizarre crew of social scientists arrives at his home, and alternately bakes and refridgerates the computer equipment the crew calls Pazook.

Though Ross's production occasionally falls into the generic failing of hollow dialogue and stale blocking, he does an impressive job with the cast. Lead Hopkins makes a strong showing. His performance is consistently focused, and though he perhaps lacks the haggard air the playwright intended for the character, he replaces it with a flawless befuddlement.

Hopkin's Huml is not a man of great introspection. As Dr. Balcar (Lyra O. Barrera) says of Pazook, "He doesn't know what's going on inside him." He is most chipper when he abuses his wife, Vlasta (Forbes), his mistress, Renata (Bina Martin), or his secretary, Blanka (Magda Hernandez). Witness the scene when, without a flinch or trace of anger, he asks Vlasta, "Will you stop speaking for all womankind and see about starting dinner?"

What is truly frightening is that Havel intends Vlasta to speak for all of womankind, and for all of womankind to speak for Vlasta. Much of the humor of the work lies in Havel's recycling women's dialogue. The playwright has Huml's wife and mistress share catty, stereotypical lines. Forbes is a little flat as Vlasta, but Martin displays some nice comic timing as Renata.

Barrera and Hernandez may not share lines, but they do share the gift of stage presence. Hernandez, as Huml's molested secretary, has perfect delivery and a touch for deadpan. Barrera, with her expressive face and quiet control, is well cast as the repressed, high strung social scientist.

Ducey and Spaggins play well off each other as they bump into furniture and smirk at each other. Ducey is especially charming as he strokes the machine and strikes up conversation about "high-altitude plums." Beneath his black cloak, Jeff Branion as their supervisor Beck adds just the right ridiculousness to the play, and lifts the door slam to a level nearing comic genius.

Decidely genius is the farcical scene in which Huml's haunts literally come crashing down upon his head. This scene is a flawless creation of sound and slapstick. Carefully choreographed characters clomp up stairs, slam doors, charge and claw the professor while screeching lines like, "You're not just trying to jolly along the fish, are you?" The laughter evinced in this scene alone would guarantee the work a place as a comic success.

Like the fish, we are being jollied along. The social scientists call their work an investigation of "man in the round," and though Havel's work is circuitous and full, a more appropriate metaphor might be "man on a merry-go-round." We should all thank Ross for the ride.