One thing you can say for the Potomac Theatre Project: It always gives you something to chew on. The political troupe's production of "Havel: The Passion of Thought" in the Olney's new alternative stage space isn't particularly exciting artistically. But it's vexing; it makes you think back at it.
Part of that thinking is likely to involve what director Richard Romagnoli and his cast have done with Vaclav Havel's three linked one-acts. (The performance opens and closes with two other short political plays by Pinter and Beckett.) Havel, the greatest dissident success story of the Cold War--the jailed and disgraced critic of the regime that ran Czechoslovakia ends up president of the country--stumbled into his role as conscience of his society while he was working as a playwright. The three plays presented here were written after his persecution by the communist government and take place during that persecution: a time when he still had his small apartment but was reduced to hefting barrels in a brewery, a humbled figure.
In these plays, Christopher Lane gives the Havel figure, Vanek, a genuine humility but lets you see how that humility is always at war with a sharp intelligence. Lane's shy smile is beautiful and childlike, but he always hesitates a beat before showing it, as if he weren't quite sure he had the right. Vanek is a man who appears to want to be elsewhere--and you can see why. He embarrasses everyone.
Not that he behaves in anything but a courteous and diffident manner. But by his very presence this man, who gave up his successful career and easy life for the sake of democratic principles, is a challenge. He never brings up political reality, but he doesn't have to: He is political reality. As such, he's an unwilling moral inkblot test for everyone he meets.
Each play presents a different encounter for Vanek: first with the brewmaster who oversees him, then with a couple thriving under the regime who have just had their first child, finally with a writer who spoke out bravely when it was safe but has been strangely silent now that it isn't. (Rumor claims this character is based on the novelist Milan Kundera.)
The brewmaster (James Matthew Ryan) comes up with the bright idea of having Vanek himself compose the weekly reports about his behavior demanded by the government. When Vanek explains that "I really can't inform on myself," the brewmaster spurts a tirade of class resentment: "The gentleman cannot participate. The gentleman cares about a principle. . . . Nothing is going to happen to you. Everybody is interested in you. You know how to cash in on [your principles]!"
The brewmaster, as Havel the playwright and Lane the actor acknowledge, has a point. The remaining two plays aren't as effective, because in them Vanek's opponents aren't allowed a point. The bourgeois couple (Tyson Lien and Michole Biancosino) are presented as shallow, materialistic and hypocritical (Biancosino doesn't help with her shrill, obvious performance), and the writer, Stanek (Ryan again), as duplicitous, cowardly and hypocritical.
It may be that Havel meant the couple and Stanek to be more humanly sympathetic, but the deck is still stacked. And Romagnoli has guaranteed that we in the audience sneer at them. In which case, why even put on this play? A production with some political power wouldn't make it easy for us to see ourselves as allies of Vanek but would force us to recognize our own weaknesses in the collaborators he encountered--most of us are, after all, more likely to resemble the latter than we do one of the world's most courageous dissidents.
And as the plays go on, you may begin to wonder a little about the saintly Havel himself. Vanek is presented as an innocent who wants no trouble, who is forced into confrontations by the guilt he engenders in others. Is this a completely accurate account of Havel's relationships with his former friends during his period in disgrace? Was there really no anger there, no judgment? What's missing from Vanek the moral touchstone is the sharp, unforgiving intelligence of the man who wrote these plays--the man who condemns everyone else onstage even while he makes the character representing him forgive them.
The opening and closing plays--Pinter's "New World Order" and Beckett's "Catastrophe #"--are both meant to refer to Havel ("Catastrophe #" was in fact written in honor of him). In the contrast of their arty fury and Havel's stoic humanity, they inadvertently illustrate another political truth: how puny the "artistic" response to political suffering is when compared with the response of someone who has actually suffered for his beliefs.
Havel: The Passion of Thought, three one-acts by Vaclav Havel, with New World Order by Harold Pinter and Catastrophe # by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Set and lights, Adam Magazine. Sound, the Chroma Group/Ron Ursano. Costumes, Malaya Drew, Debra Sivigny, Frank Wildermann. With Alexander Cranmer, Peter Makrauer, Malaya Drew, Frank Wildermann, Raquel Davis. At Olney's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab through Aug. 29, in repertory with "Stanley." Call 301-924-3400.
CAPTION: Christopher Lane as a principled innocent in Czech dissident Vaclav Havel's one-act plays.
CAPTION: Christopher Lane with Tyson Lien and Michole Biancosino in Potomac Theatre Project's "Havel: The Passion of Thought."