Last May Czech audiences Vancouver saw the DIVADLO ZA ROHEM’s production of Moliere’s Le malade imaginaire with its ebullient humour, lively movements, mischievous double entendres, and final ironic scene, as the hero, hamletlike, is carried off stage after a mocking but blissful fulfilment of his dreams: a doctorate in medicine. The DIVADLO ZA ROHEM’s next production, that ran in the first week of December is a different kind of play. Again under the unique--not an empty word here--direction of Dr. Josef Skála the company proved its versatility by tackling a dramatic text that could be described as diametrically opposed to Moliere’s playful view of man and his foibles: Arnošt Goldflam’s Catastrophic grotesque: Tzv. Sci-fi. If we regard Moliere’s play as, say, a symphony with a hundred instruments, culminating in a high-spirited flourish, Goldflam’s play seems like a piece of chamber music in which four instruments create a mesmerizing pattern of harmonies and disharmonies, moving from major key to minor, raising increasingly profound questions. This does not mean, however, that the play is an abstract, philosophic text in which the characters engage in existential discussions. As director Skála writes in the programme notes: “The first glance seems to indicate that this is just a simple story of a meeting between four ordinary people of our unwell Century.”
Yet one might speculate that playwrights and directors who make ‘good theatre’ meet somewhere in the subtext. In Goldflam’s Sci-fi
just as in Moliere’s Malade
characters harbour illusions, rationalize in order to deceive, and twist the truth until they no longer know what is true and what is not. Both plays end with the death of the hero who argued his case throughout the action and the symbolic nature of this death tosses a questions mark at the audience: in Moliere with a knowing grin, in Goldflam with a thoughtful, dark gaze.
A word on the plot: an average couple, the Peterkas, living a grey, shabby existence in a basement, have guests. During the visit Peterka tells several stories from his life--how he was received and profusely hosted by various state dignitaries. The telling of the stories is frequently interrupted by Peterka’s pleading question whether the visitors believed him. As the couples begin to dance, Peterka collapses and dies. His body is dragged out by the wife and the visitor. Mrs. Peterka takes up her life again with resolute resignation. If told in this way, the plot represents only the deceiving surface of deep and turbulent waters.
The audience entering the theatre sees a stage set (scenographer Petr Bezruc’s skilled touches are apparent right away) that seems far from ‘sci-fi’. An art nouveau protrait of Sarah Bernhartd on one side, on the other a large panel, a sort of tree of life (reproducing G.Klimt), covered with living growth. Below it there is a suggested small flowering garden, idyllic and beyond the periphery of the rest of the stage. There we enter the glittering atmosphere of a secession salon--red velvet, silver candle holders, a small table with wine glasses, ideal for an elegant tete a tete. When the lights go down, loud music starts literally with a bang. It is a tune by R.H. Dvorsky (as the programme note tells us) that carries us rhythmically into a dreamy tango-obsessed universe which, at the same time, has an uncanny effect that seems to cast a threatening spell.
After that the mood changes again and through the patina of static we hear a slagr from the early days of the century out of which, as the lights come up, two couples emerge, in half phantasic half realistic attires (Zdenka Dornicakova’s imaginative costume designing) and sway in sweet forgetfulness of the world, yielding to the romantic melody. The audience, lulled into cosy abandon by this nostalgic scene, is in for a shock. While still rhythmically swaying, one of the couples separates and begins to dismantle the scene. The strip-tease begins: off with the red velvet cover, revealing an ugly kitchen stove; of with the candle holders and brocade, laying bare a few crates that can serve as chairs; off with the wine glasses and table cloth; off with the elegant clothes of the couple seated at the table. What appears is a housedress with apron and a grey sweat shirt with braces respectively. Before the audience catches its breath, the woman, plain Mrs. Peterka, is sitting by the stove, peeling potatoes, while her husband, plain Mr. Peterka, is crouching at the other side of the stage, polishing shoes. It is here that Goldflam’s text begins.
I would like here to draw attention to the creative mind of director Josef Skála who, as we just witnessed, moulded an original context for the play and deepened its reflection on life in the twentieth century. To quote his own words from the programme note: “It’s a sort of an absurd game or masquerade on themes of human destiny in the 20th century....” His invention of the girl in white dress (an angel, destiny, the Life itself?) who in several crucial moments interrupts the story with an old sentimental song: “My little baby, don’t ever believe that life is full of roses...) gives the play a new, and crucial dimension.
As we listen to the dialogue of the Peterkas--stumbling over itself, bulging with tautologies and fallacies, petty aggressions and tiny concessions, cat’s paw power struggles and flashes of hysteria simmering under the surface--we can hear the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Everyman, burdened by their own sense of inadequacy, trying to do their best but never managing, crouching in the dusky corner of their privacy, yet expecting--half fearfully, half hopefully--the arrival of their guests. When after a time the door bell rings, the Peterkas freeze (with fear? confusion? hope?). Punctuated by the increasingly imperious sound of the door bell there ensues a hectic exchange via the closed door. The ‘visitors’ are put through a series of questions, to ascertain their identity and intentions. When the door is finally opened and the visitors are let in, the Peterka masquerade begins.
A glance at the actors who form a finely-tuned quartet: Olda Patak and Nora Linhartova move intelligently and convincingly through their demanding roles which develop from a quasi-slapstick dialogue to half-suppressed existential anxiety. When the initial bickering reaches a shouting climax, and stored up hatred bursts out of Peterka, he turns to the old standby in situations of this kind: food. He reaches for a potato and begins to chew. Or else the moment when, carried away by the tall tale he serves the visitors, he forgets the place where the story was to have taken place, until he is reminded of it by the puzzled guest. Thrown off course for a moment, he rapidly regains composure and tries, bend or break, to continue with the story although its flow is broken and the carefully constructed illusion has cracked. Olda Patak’s command of these subtle switches in emotion was masterly. Nora Linhartova’s Mrs. Peterka sprouted with harsh aggressive talkativeness at the start and became hysterically officious as she tried to make conversation (about nothing) with the guests and filled silences in conversation (the director’s timing was precise) with offers of food and drink. As the tension rose, her husband’s stories needed more support from her, and the play’s colouring became darker, she turned into an anxious little housewife, just intent on keeping the peace and sustaining the Peterka-illusion of all being just great: home, marriage, life in general. And she holds on to this: she will continue to pretend that death does not exist:“No Peterka ever existed”. And she continues entertaining her guests.
Jiri Adler as Mr. Cermak, the visitor, seemed to remain his calm rational self. But on a deeper level he managed to define three stages in the development of is character from initial polite, non-committal response, to irritatedly disclosing the sham, to a subdued but intense grasp of Peterka’s need of support. Like good Horatio to this shabby Hamlet, he always did what was needed: ask a searching question but not push for an answer, calm his upset lady companion when she cannot take it any longer; help carry out dead Peterka’s body.
Hana Lynn as Cermak’s modish girlfriend manages to convey with relatively few words her progression from naivete to confusion, scepticism, irritation and a final outburst when she shouts out what she sees as the truth which the Peterkas constantly deny. But the director adds a wonderfully light touch. She, too, learns the lesson of enriching pretense. While the others are busy with Peterka’s body, she goes through the motions of lighting a nonexistent cigarette and has a blissful ‘virtual’ smoke.
Here, however, we might need another reminder: for all its vivid realism of character this play is not a realistic drama. All through the action the audience has a symbol of this shimmering before their eyes: it is a figure in white (the delicate Jana Surova) who is weaving flowers in the little garden side stage, oblivious to the hectic goings on in the lives of ordinary mortals, suspended in another space--a space of harmony and serenity, of natural rhythm of truth without pretense. Only at the end of the play, as Peterka dies, she seems to become aware of him and breathes a gentle song in his direction. When, in the final moments of the play, the other characters freeze in motion as the door bell rings once again and the cycle of fear and pretense could start all over, Peterka emerges lithely on the other side of the stage and begins to dance with the serene figure in white, whose presence he had been unable to detect during his life of poverty, hectic pretense, mounting fear and paling love.
In the course of the partly halting, partly flowing conversation existential themes emerge like large submerged animals from a dark ocean: There is fear (the word “strach” is spoken by all four participants.) Trailing with it the questions: Fear of what? Authorities? People? Life itself? Death? There appear the changing faces of love and the receding patterns of hope. There is--sustained in variation throughout the play--the theme of man’s illusion--his ‘life lie’as Sartre would say—which makes a decrepit basement into a salon for guests, which denies the general shabbiness of life and urges lies to be told, not as lies but as defences before emptiness. On a more concrete level: The sandwiches are boiled potatoes, the wine is coloured water, the chairs are crates, the cigarettes, craved by Cermak’s lady friend, have to be invented. All is--and one recognizes the relevance to our late millennium days--virtual reality!
But there is one precious moment of truth that emerges like a bright ray from the shadows of painfully suspended pretense: Peterka, sensing that all might finish soon, admits that all his stories were invented, that he is just a little nobody: “Nobody knows me. My life never meant anything....”. But it is his guests who have now grasped the need for illusion: “That’s not true, you must never even acknowledge it” argues Cermak and soon they are all back in invented reality.
It is the profound understanding that Josef Skála and the actors he leads have brought to the play that have made this reviewer realize that Arnost Goldflam’s catastrophic grotesque tries to reach out into dimensions that have been explored by several major playwrights of the twentieth century. The Peterkas, like Beckett’s hapless clowns, are waiting for some kind of Godot; like the heroine in Durrenmatt’s The Visit of the Old Lady, the visitors to Peterkas’ basement break the accumulated illusion, and unleash the hero’s catharsis and subsequent death; as in a Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter the ordinary words used by the characters open up concealed space for vast unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions; as in Václav Havel’s texts the cliches used by the characters show that their language does not arise from thought but rather from scraps of convention, suppressed needs, and the comforting mechanisms of general behaviour. Goldflam gives these modern or post-modern themes his own particular touch. He provides the director and his actors with an open dramatic structure that gives them enormous possibilities but also poses a rigorous challenge for creative response. By exploring these possibilities to the full, THE DIVADLO ZA ROHEM team have brought the text alive: They achieved a delicate balance between the comic and the tragic, between the common and the extraordinary, between realism and symbolism. Indeed there is also a political perspective: in this interpretation the play could be seen as a parable of average people’s lives under the reductive pressure of a coercive system, but also as a parable of human existence under the stress of the uncertainties of a free wheeling democracy. In other words, this play is about life. “Life is on the line” as two of the characters say in passing.
Once again we have seen what good theatre can do. Bravissimo, Theatre Around the Corner!!