"Vatzlav," a curious drama by Poland's Slawomir Mrozek, is as good an example as any of the particular way the theater of the absurd evolved in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s.
To those fundamental absurdist tenets -- reason as just another kind of nonsense, the universe as an empty, godless drum, and man as a hapless marionette -- playwrights behind the Iron Curtain added, understandably enough, the notions of government as a vast incomprehensible conspiracy and power as a bloodthirsty creature with a will all its own. Since direct political commentary was (and is) not encouraged, the topsy-turvy dream dramaturgy of absurdism allowed them to make their points with impunity.
"Vatzlav," currently being staged with more ambition than finesse by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, has characters masquerading as bears, the blind Oedipus as a spy, Justice performing a striptease ("so people will be inflamed by a noble desire for justice") and a plot of treason and betrayal worthy of the Elizabethans. In its spare, cartoonish outlines, it suggests the bleached bones of a Shakespearean fantasy that wandered off into the desert and died.
In no fewer than 77 scenes, Mrozek is spinning the allegorical saga of the shipwrecked Vatzlav, who sets out in a new land to find happiness, money and freedom. Along the way he encounters, among others, the exploitative Mr. Bat and his wife (capitalism and its hangers-on, apparently), Quail and Sassafras (the People), The Genius (a senile idiot) and a maiden named Justine (Justice), before General Barbaro (Babarianism, surely) foments a revolution and replaces one rotten regime with another, no more responsive to human need.
Up to now, Woolly Mammoth has displayed a welcome eccentricity in its choice of theatrical fare, and "Vatzlav" is certainly the most eccentric play it has yet chosen. I only wish the company were performing it with somewhat greater zest. Mrozek depicts a world veering out of control, but this production has been directed with an all-too-even hand by Howard Shalwitz. Roger M. Brady, a generally reliable actor, plays the title role completely off the cuff, when a more wily and anarchic approach seems needed. The same holds for many of Woolly Mammoth's regulars (Beverly Brigham Bowman, Susan McDonald, Stephen Wallace Haines, David Rose). They show a certain caricatural flair. However, to liberate the true comic energies of "Vatzlav" for an American audience, you probably need the latter-day equivalents of the Marx Brothers churning up the madness.
What remains encouraging about Woolly Mammoth is its sense of adventure. The company is apparently determined not to resort to the more obvious theatrical fare to win audiences and attention. For that, it should be applauded. But only when the productions consistently match in inventiveness the daring of the scripts will we have full reason to cheer.