In 1965 Vaclav Havel pushed the misuse of language by bureaucracies to its inhumane limits. His second play, The Memorandum, is his most produced play. The Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s cast and production team under the able leadership of director Paul Morgan Stetler, modernizes the trappings of this absurdist play. The crucial memo of the title, for example, comes through via email which is printed out. Computers, smartphones, headsets, streaming audio, tablets—and what would an office be without PowerPoint—are everywhere. Sound and Production Director Brendan Patrick Hogan did a terrific job of making us feel this is Now. The set and furnishings by scenery director Greg Carter are Ikea modern. The training room is set off to one side and bleeds into the aisles. This adds to the feeling of a crowded office. This is as Havel would have had it.
On a typical day at the office, Managing Director Josef Gross (played with appropriate increasing bafflement by Galen Joseph Osier), arrives at his desk, opens his Apple MacBook and begins to sift through his inbox. He comes across a memo in a new language, prints it, reads it out loud, has a WTF reaction, and proceeds to search around his offices to find out what it is written in and to get it translated. The language is Ptydepe. This is a “synthetic language, built on a scientific basis. … It is a thoroughly exact language capable of expressing with far greater precision than any natural tongues all the minutest nuances in the formulation of important office documents.” The unspoken irony in the play is that hardly anyone does any real work.
Gross’s Deputy Director Jan Ballas (Trick Danneker) who has engineered the whole switch, now has the upper hand. He has slipped in this new language under Gross’s nose and uses petty administrative problems to get Gross to sign away his authority or risk Ballas exposing his personal use of minor office property (a rubber stamp) for his child to play with. He demotes Gross to Deputy Manager and puts himself in the Managing Director’s office. Gross’s misfortunes fall even further as Ballis next demotes him to the job of Watcher who spies on everyone from behind the walls. Finally, Ballis finds a way to fire Gross.
At our hero’s lowest moment he is saved. One young secretary takes pity on Gross and translates his memo without authorization. The memo vindicates Gross and allows him to somewhat restore himself to his original office. But he still has as little backbone as before, so the cycle will repeat itself with the replacement language which is supposedly easier to learn—Chorukor.
The show’s standout comic relief moments are Sarah Hartlett as Lear, the Ptydepe Instructor, at the PowerPoint projector expounding the virtues of this new language to progressively fewer students. There is also a fun scene blocked film noir style, which means, the actors faced the audience and not each other while they spoke their lines. Keiko Green as The Chairman (she is not sure of what) seems to be in the middle of the whole mess, literally, yet not expected or required to exert any authority or initiative.
Havel had the genius to discern a way for theater to be a mirror, an outlet, and a wedge at the same time. Five years later, Joe Papp directed it as his second project during his very first season at the New York Public Theater. Havel’s biographers describe the summer of ’68 as his freest as Papp sponsored his travel to see the production and spend three weeks exploring New York. He came back to Communist Czechoslovakia whose small experiments with personal freedoms were crushed by a Soviet Union led invasion that same year. He spent years under constant surveillance and in and out of jail. He was stubborn. He helped lead the Velvet Revolution which overthrew the Communist Regime in 1989 by organizing massive demonstrations and a general strike. A free and grateful citizenry elected him the first President of the new Czech Republic.
Havel prophesied his destiny in this play. He has Maria, the only character with a backbone, tell Gross, “If your conscious is clear you’ve nothing to worry about. Your innocence will be proved, but you have to fight for it! I believe that if one doesn’t give way, truth must always come out in the end.”
The Memorandum by Vaclav Havel, directed by Paul Morgan Stetler. Runtime 1 hr 45 min., with one intermission. Strawberry Theatre Workshop at 12th Ave Arts. 1620 12th Ave, Capitol Hill. Thur – Sat at 7:30 PM. Tickets at strawshop.org. Opened Sept 10 — Closes Oct 10.