With friends like these, who needs enemies? That nagging notion repeatedly pops up during the handful of mini-plays comprising Havel: the Passion of Thought, presented by the Potomac Theatre Project at Atlantic Stage 2 through Aug. 4.
The centerpiece of this multi-tonal, mind-stirring evening directed by PTP co-head Richard Romagnoli is a trio of politically charged shorts by Vaclav Havel known as The Vanek Plays. They were written in the 1970s but banned in Czechoslovakia until 1990, after the dissident dramatist became president.
Havel has a keen understanding of relationships. It shines even in the shadows in his three one-acts in which Vanek (David Barlow, who’s in all five shorts), the author’s alter ego, lets others do most of the talking while he sticks to his ethics and his activism grows.
First up is the seriocomic Interview, set in a dingy office of a beer plant, where Vanek, a writer recently sprung from prison, works thanks to the Brewmaster (Michael Laurence), who never lets Vanek forget that. The boss holds their “friendship” over Vanek’s head along with an offer of a cushy position with self-strangling strings attached.
In the farcical Private View, Vanek’s married BFFs Michael (Marshall) and Vera (Emily Kron, giddily game for anything) relentlessly remind their bestie that their home, sex life and lifestyle are superior to his – and that he should get with their program. As written and staged, the duo is so over-the-top (cue the confetti cannons!), one wonders if they buy what they’re selling.
The provocative Protest introduces Vanek’s old friend Stanekova (an excellent Danielle Skraastad), a writer whose compromises have enabled her to be “tolerated by the official apparatus” and afforded her a life of abundance. In her backyard garden, the gladioli come in 32 shades. But will her moral fortitude bloom again? That’s the point of this piece, the evening’s best, as she reasons – machinelike – about signing Vanek’s petition to free an unjustly jailed artist.
Bookending Havel’s plays are two more one-acts. First up is Harold Pinter’s The New World Order, in which interrogators (Michael Laurence, Christopher Marshall) in crisp white shirts and black ties tell a hooded prisoner seated silently before them that he can’t imagine what’s going to happen to him. And his wife. The calm, matter-of-factness gives this bite-sized short sharp teeth.
Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe, written to honor Havel, brings a different sort of manipulation. A director (Madeline Ciocci) and an assistant (Emily Ballou) bend and shape a bedraggled man to their liking. The short would be more effective if it, like the Pinter piece, was played low-key. Nonetheless, the last image we see – a silent turn of a head – sends us out into the street with plenty to think about.
Havel: the Passion of Thought runs in rotation with Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, two short works by Tom Stoppard, who knew Havel.