Panych Has Panache:
I attended the final performance of the Vigil last night at the Firehall Arts Centre. Although born in Prague and understanding the language, I had no idea there was a Czech theatre company in Vancouver (Theatre Around the Corner, the company which brought the production to Vancouver), so thank you for your article in the February 16, 2006 issue of the Province newspaper. I hope to enjoy more Czech productions from TAC in the future. Below is my layman’s review:
I was not familiar with local man-about-the-theatre Morris Panych’s two-act play, Vigil (the story of a middle-aged man’s visit to the home of a seemingly ailing old woman) and am grateful for that. I was thereby able to enjoy the unexpected twist in the second act all the more. Nina Jiránková played the old woman and Václav Postránecký was her visitor.
The set, although sparse, was perfectly suited to the play. I was especially impressed with the subtle changes in lighting to depict the different seasons occurring outside Jiránková’s window. More impressive was the fact that this two hour play is almost entirely a monologue on the part of the middle-aged visitor, and Postránecký handled it with the finesse of the world-class stage actor that he is.
That’s not to say that Jiránková had it easy. Her sometimes steely and oft confused gaze and minor movements on stage were delivered with absolute perfection. I was not uncomfortable with her silence. In fact, the stage was beautifully punctuated when she did speak. Postránecký’s character enters as a misanthropic man with a rare sense of duty when he decides to visit the mainly bed-ridden Jiránková. His moods - rage, pain, melancholy, self-doubt, and ultimately, love (among others) – undulate throughout; a difficult task, appearing effortless by Panych’s superb playwrighting and Postránecký’s seamless acting.
With my Czech compatriots beside me, I laughed, I cried, and I even dropped my head into my hands and gasped when the “twist” was revealed. It was a deliciously rare treat to see this first-rate play performed in my mother language by living legends of the Czech theatre world.
(this review was also published on vancouverplays.com)
Is This Dance of Death Or a Dance of Life?
An attempt to explore the Czech version of Morris Panych’s play Vigil. Czech translation (Moje teta, tvoje teta) by Alexander Jerie; directed and designed (stage, costumes, lights) by Václav Postránecký. The Vancouver production was prepared by the Theatre Around the Corner, led by Dr. Josef Skála. Staged at the Firehall Arts Centre, February 21- 23, 2006).
Silence in the darkened auditorium of the ‘downtown East’ Firehall Arts Centre theatre in Vancouver. Before the audience’s inner eye floats the image of the open stage area they saw when they entered. Centre stage a bed with a flowered cover, to the right two scattered chairs covered with bleached cloths, two tables similarly covered – their forms still obvious. An old record player. On the faded wallpaper traces of removed pictures. In the audience’s minds (some drawing on memory, others on the programme in their hands) the awareness that this was going to be an almost unique ‘homecoming’ of a play written by a well-known Canadian playwright/director/actor, and staged in Vancouver eleven years ago at the Arts Club Theatre. Now it had come full circle via London, Paris, Prague and Toronto (where it was welcomed for four nights by the Czech audience of the New Theatre under Pavel Kral) back to its Vancouver birthplace, metamorphosed into another culture, looking at its author with a new surprisingly knowing gaze through the sounds of an unknown language.
The lights go on. The bed now seems occupied by a small curled up body, unrecognizable under the bed cover. This quiet picture is countered by an overpoweringly loud sound, a sort of breathing, heaving noise scraping the audience’s ears. Then the ring of what obviously is a door buzzer, a small hand reaching out from the bed answering the door, heavy steps on a concealed staircase, a middle?aged man, obviously out of breath, trudges in with an obviously heavy suitcase. It is a scene sanctioned by a time?honoured theatrical pattern: an unexpected visitor has arrived to initiate the action. But what kind of a visit this will turn out to be!
A glance at the plot: Kemp, the man with the suitcase, has come to visit his dying aunt (at least he assumes it’s his aunt) who had written him after 45 years of non?communication, asking him to come to bury her. This is what he has come to do. The rest of the play – Kemp’s dramatic monologue, delivered in flashes, as the lights go on and off, turns around his growing impatience to get the matter done and over with. While she quietly listens on her bed, he displays his thoughts that range from what he treats as pragmatic issues (and for any an?evening?out?at?the?theatre?audience decidedly shocking) like the aunt’s upcoming funeral and cremation, to inverted worry about her ‘state of health’ that seems to be holding out and rendering his preparations beside the point. The histrionic timing of Kemp’s matter?of?fact but implicitly acrimonious comments inevitably causes amusement among the audience–whether they like it or not, they probably don’t??and thus illuminates the basic and potentially horrendous proximity of the fleeting nature of human life and callous belly?laughter. Toward the end of the play (here I would argue that it is simply an attempt to add another absurd twist to the plot because the strange ‘bonding’ of the two main characters has already taken place and is not really affected by the new discovery) Kemp realizes that his real aunt whom he had come to attend to was a neighbour across the street, of whom the audience became oddly aware because he kept waving and throwing non?complimentary jokes at someone beyond the stage who obviously remained motionless at her window because, as he finds out later, she had died in the meantime. His whole humanitarian endeavour had obviously been a mistake, moreover a mistake of which his non?aunt Grace had been fully aware all along. And yet, perhaps it was no mistake at all. What do we humans know, the play seems to ask, of the mysterious forces through which our insignificant little lives are moved about?
To call the well-known actor Václav Postránecký’s performance brilliant seems a cliché unworthy of his performance. Never over-acting under his own direction, he played through all the shades of the character: a bumbling, half?bitter, half?romantic, suppressed gay, practical yet ‘out?to?lunch’, a bit of a cheap showman (he likes declaim Hamlet), a coward by nature, oddly innocent in his brutality, secretly yearning for affection, with festering emotional scars caused by his dysfunctional family that emerges in hilarious scraps of memory (“My mother had no time to look after me, she always had her hands full [pause] a fag in one hand and a glass of booze in the other.”) At times he is strutting cocklike around the stage, at other times sliding anxiously, dashing in a bout of fury, freezing into immobility for fear of himself when he has botched various attempts at shortening the aunt’s life (his trying to get her, unsuccessfully, to use a self?made euthanasia contraption is, despite its underlying gravity, irresistibly funny). When, in the final moments of the play, he opens the present the now departed ‘aunt’ Grace had given him and finds a large sea shell, he sets it to his ear and, smiling blissfully – his only smile in the play - moves his fingers in a motion that he had described earlier as acknowledging that something no longer there, still existed. Postránecký’s voice control could provide material for a study in itself: it can rise to a powerful angry bellow, descend into a secretive whisper, toughen up with intended decisiveness, become silky and pliable when he remembers rare good moments with his father.
His partner, the eminent actress Nina Jiránková, does with her eyes what Postránecký does with his voice. As the almost bed?ridden ‘aunt’, she is dressed in a nightshirt, a little black cap is holding her hair, her legs are covered by thick white stockings, the cane she uses when she slowly gets up from her bed to take a few cautious steps, is stuck under her pillow. Working only with her facial muscles, her eyes and sparingly with her hands, she expresses an amazing range of emotions. She can be shocked, surprised, amused, disappointed, joyful (particularly as she knits with girlish enthusiasm a pink - she obviously understands these things - sweater for her visitor). Three times she says a few words and her mellifluous voice sounds like the pure sound of an oboe amidst the wild orchestration provided by Kemp’s vocal antics. It is only her decades?long experience on stages of the best Prague theatres as well as her profound sensitivity as an actress and human being, that Mme. Jiránková was able to create this silent and highly restrictive role and make it unforgettable for the audience.
A word (though definitely amateurish) on the composition of sound and light effects. Working like clockwork, the complex pattern of sounds (from threatening tumultuous roar, to chain?saw imitation of Kemp’s snoring, to the twittering of birds – indicating the passing of time) at times illustrated the action as if in a concave mirror, at other times opposed it stressing the general mood of absurdity. The lights, cutting the play into numerous scenes, were used with mathematical precision. The reflected rapidly changing the moods, permitted punch lines to linger in the air, suggested changes in the relationship between the two characters, and gave creative shape to the plot. Actually, the technical aspects of this production (that, by the way, was almost completely sold out for the entire three-day run, and this despite the attraction of the simultaneously televised Winter Olympics in Turin) were considerable and much more challenging than meets the audience’s eye. The stage set, lights, sound and props that had to be put in place within one single day, functioned on a professional level without a single glitch. I was told that after the last performance Vaclav Postranecky actually said that even after forty performances at a professional theatre in Prague he did not experience so faultless a technical support as now in Vancouver. This success is, obviously, due to producer Dr. Josef Skála (co-founder of the Theatre Around the Corner thirty years ago) and his trusty team Jiří Adler, Peter Bugár, Tereza and Karel Růžička, and Martin Sabo.
There is another point that I feel ought to be made here: Morris Panych’s play, despite the typical thrust of its lively and hard?hitting dialogue, is actually a rather bare piece of dramatic writing that thrives on the ‘épater le bourgeois’ thrust of its black voyeurism. Two lonely people, one a desolate loser, the other on her deathbed, meet on the basis of an error, get to know and like each other. One doesn’t make it through the play but her end is peaceful, the other has learned a lesson and ends up better and/or happier than he was at the start. Basta! This is obviously not a plot that reveals a wealth of ideas. When it does touch on “broad philosophical questions,” (as Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia says), that hover in the background of our busy lives: questions about good and evil, reality and illusion, defeatism and hope, resentment and love, death and its opposite – be it physical life or the notion of metaphysics, it seems to fall short of exploring them in its language. But perhaps this is the playwright’s trademark. His writing is a sort of libretto for creative acting, design, imaginative light and sound patterns, and as such is in tune with the visual and aural passions of our multimedia age. Moreover, in the performance discussed here, the play’s text is supported with utmost theatrical acumen and as such is lifted far above the level of modish shock?value black theatre.
On an interesting note beyond the theatre stage: later in the evening of the premiere, during a lengthy bilingual discussion between the playwright Panych (who was delighted with the staging he had just witnessed) and actor/director Postránecký, the two found that they were indeed kindred spirits who had much in common and began to make plans for future collaboration. This was told to me by Dr. Josef Skála who spent half the night translating the above exciting discussion from Czech into English and vice versa.
(this review was also published on vancouverplays.com)