You Won't Be Able to Read This
By Vaclev Havel
Directed by Martin Hostetler '00
At the Loeb Experimental Theatre
For those of you who missed the production of Vaclav Havel's 1965 play The Memorandum at the Ex this past Weekend, you should forever regret missing the chance to learn the intricacies and contours of Ptydepe. Junior Martin Hostetler's adaptation of now-Czech-President Havel's madcap satirical comedy was, for the most part, dead-on. The play itself, essentially a lampoon of modern bureaucracy based on the introduction of a scientifically engineered language, "Ptydepe," into a truly bizarre office space, is remarkably relevant to 20-somethings caught up in today's corporate America. Because Havel's material is so clever, a decent production of The Memorandum would be easy, but an exceptional production will require a special affinity for Havel's idiom. Surprisingly, this group of students can speak Havel's language--excellent acting, creative set design and, most importantly, faithfulness to the spirit of Havel's wild imagination, produced a hilariously impressive final product.
The feel of the play itself can be described as a cross between Kafka's The Trial and the Coen Brothers' comedies (The Big Lebowski). The protagonist Gross, played by Tom Prince '02, is a self-proclaimed humanist who has been blackmailed into allowing Ptydepe to become the official means of intra-office communication by his assistant, the nefarious Ballas, played expertly by Johannes Mowth, and, presumably, by the silent accomplice Mr. Pillar (Malka Resnicoff '00/Hostetler). As Gross begins his quest to set things right and prevent the ridiculously efficient language from taking over, he meets an absurd cast of office characters who seem to feed off one another's eccentricities.
To produce The Memorandum well, everyone involved must have a solid feel for the material's unique comedy and its subtle inner logic. Hostetler appears to have given his actors the freedom not only to become their characters, but to create them as well. The result is a supporting cast which takes full advantage of the idiosyncrasies already in Havel's text and also adds their own level of comedic interpretation. Although Hostetler's script diverges very little from Havel's, when it does, the additions and deletions illustrate a highly developed sense of humor and an intimate knowledge of how far the text can be taken, since some of the show's funnier lines are not found in the original. The biggest risk Hostetler takes with the script is the substitution of pop culture references and American slang for some of Havel's more parochial jokes--but even these anachronisms somehow fit.
Although the play came together under Hostetler's vision, it would not have come off half as well without some truly exciting acting. Prince brought his boyish looks to bear on the idealistic Gross and was at his best when Gross waxes poetic about his best when Gross waxes poetic about his subverted boyhood dreams--scenes milked for maximum farcicality by a witty combination of set props, lighting and nostalgic music. Prince was complimented and almost upstaged by a courageous performance by Mowth as the fast-talking Machiavellian, Ballas. In the most difficult role in the play, Mowth demonstrated a fine sense of timing with Ballas' complicated speeches and an ability to recover quickly even when one of Ballas' convoluted lines momentarily escaped him. In the supporting cast, Pete Wilson '99 was very entertaining doing double duty as Savant and Thump, two of the funniest characters in the play. Other highlights included the perfectly constructed voices of Prof. Lear (Michael Katherine Haynie '99), and Hana, played to her airy best by Kate Wiswell '99.
The most admirable aspect of this production was its willingness to take risks. The stage itself was not only a grand aesthetic risk--with its maze of entrances, Ptydepe graffitied walls, a slide, a crooked door and a rope swing reserved for Gross' boyhood digressions--it also proved a physical risk in what some are calling the visitation of the old "Macbeth curse." Jason S. Chaffin '00-'01 (Stroll) sprained his ankle during a rehearsal, Malka Resnicoff (Ms. P) was injured and had to be replaced by none other than Hostetler, and Mimi Asness '02 (Maria) punctured her finger while striking the set. But for all its hazards, the set, designed by Josh Perry '00, was a bold interpretation which married the familiar office setting with the frivolous humor of the play.
The group of students who brought The Memorandum to the Ex introduced an absurd office setting to a campus where absurdity is normally limited to course books and thesis titles, and had a great time doing it.