Principles, principles—you’re making a fortune ... who’s going to write about me?” So a brewmaster (Jeff Thomas), swilling his wares in an office, complains to dissident playwright Vanek (Craig Souza), his would-be protege whom he’s called in from the cellars for a chat and a stein, in the first one of the Eastenders’ production of three Vaclav Havel one-acts. Three Vanek Plays: Audience, Unveiling, and Protest, is in its final weekend at the Berkeley Jewish Community Center on Walnut Street.
The titles alone prove to be double-edged, ironic. Vanek, trying to keep a low profile, is instead showered with attention by his boss and self-styled patron at the brewery, a young couple who insist he’s their best friend and want him to share in their domestic bliss and a fellow writer, horticultural hobbyist, who’s become ruefully successful in television.
All are ostensibly friendly to the writer on the edge, who seems to want only to live quietly and agreeably while working on his plays and political pursuits. The friends grow insistent, passive-aggressive: they truly care about him, they’re not telling him what to do. But he’s rejecting them if he doesn’t take their advice, commiserate or party with them, hear their confessions or their self-congratulations, offer his stamp of approval.
Havel said that the plays “are essentially not plays about Vanek, but plays about the world as it reveals itself when confronted with Vanek.”
With this dialectic in mind, it’s no surprise, just a droll pleasure, that the straight man proves to be consistently the most interesting player. Craig Souza, long an Eastender, parries his friends’ kindly thrusts a little laconically, setting up more of their extravagance. He’s progressively retiring, if agitated, as they go over the top, trying to impress him with the gravity of their own existences.
The Vanek plays of the ’70s began with Audience, originally written to entertain a get-together of Havel’s fellow writers, all of whom had work suppressed in their own countries. It unexpectedly proved a public success—and was in turn suppressed. Taken together, the Vanek plays have been produced more often and in more places than any of Havel’s other works for the stage—and Vanek has been taken up as the central character by Havel’s colleagues Pavel Kohout, Pavel Landovsky and Jiri Dienstbier for their own Vanek plays.
The trenchant irony of the plays runs deeper than the political references, deeper than the double-bind the dissident writer is put in by his friends and admirers. Both by reflection and refraction, a claustrophobic social situation is revealed: a brewmaster turned drunkard, paranoid about conspiracies all around him, but wanting Vanek to write reports on himself; the urbane, fashionable young couple, ecstatic in their roles as lovers, consumers, parents yet provincially determined to tell Vanek what’s wrong with his life and rope him into theirs; the successful TV writer who wants to confess his political errors to the dissident, ask his disinterested support in a matter of familial interest yet criticize his idolized friend’s character as well as his own duplicity.
And yet all have their points, too, revealing the isolation of the ethical dissident and scrupulous writer from the issues of social life: class, family, professional.
The cast, with the direction of Eastenders artistic directors Susan Evans and Gina Baleria, throw themselves into the half-caricatured roles with zest, offsetting Souza’s reaction takes, and making the dissident Vanek seem in counterpoint like a cowed lion tamer. These include Jeff Thomas as the soused (and pissy) brewmaster, Amanda Krampf and Wylie Herman as the with-it couple, trading off as demure and aggressive, and Craig Dickerson as the sympathetic, self-deprecatory (and self-involved) “industry” man.
The Eastenders have made it an ongoing point to come up with modern plays from all over that carry a satiric—or emotionally compelling—social message. These plays are often stylized—besides Havel, Brecht and Mayakovsky come to mind—but played by the Eastenders in brisk American comedic or dramatic fashion. It’s a balancing act, as the productions in the countries of origin often border on the grotesque, in their sense of caricature.
There have been precedents in which an American performance style has melded with European dramaturgy—Lubitsch’s screen comedies come to mind, like ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ with Jimmy Stewart, or ‘To Be or Not to Be’ with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard—delivering a flavor both American and European, yet somehow more than either or the sum of both.
The Eastenders continue to strive after that kind of synthesis with the plays of Nobel prizewinner, former president of the Czech Republic Havel.
THREE VANEK PLAYS:
AUDIENCE, UNVEILING, PROTEST
8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday at the East Bay Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St. $15-$20.