It’s a welcome-to-the-machine moment. Mild-mannered writer Ferdinand Vaněk is visiting the home of his smug, materialistic friends Vera and Michael, who have been lecturing him about the deficiencies in his life and marriage. Abruptly, these two yuppies seem to lose the little personal warmth they possessed. They start to chant in unison about their desire to help Vaněk. Their hands clasp and clench robotically. Their eyes glaze over. A droning sound swells in the background. It’s as if Vera and Michael were suddenly exposed as cogs in the soulless engine that is their value system.
The moment passes — Vera and Michael morph back into human snobs — but near-identical sequences recur, becoming a striking leitmotif in Miřenka Čechová’s production of “Unveiling,” a one-act by the late Czech playwright, dissident and statesman Václav Havel. The piece, running at the black-box theater at Artisphere through Sunday, has bargain-counter production values, but Čechová — a performer, choreographer and director from the Czech Republic — has given it an intriguing, stylized physicality and tone that suit the script’s satirical bent.
“Unveiling” constitutes half of “The Václav Havel Project,” a double bill produced by the Alliance for New Music-Theatre that is destined to travel to the Prague Fringe Festival this month. (The project had its roots in a Havel-focused festival that the Czech Embassy mounted last fall.) The other half of the double bill is a world premiere: “Vaněk Unleashed,” a new music-theater piece devised, written and directed by Susan Galbraith, based on “Letters to Olga,” a collection of missives that Havel wrote to his wife from prison in the years before the Velvet Revolution. Boasting a whimsical chamber-opera-style score by Maurice Saylor, the work is named for, and features, the same Ferdinand Vaněk who appears in “Unveiling.”
Havel invented Vaněk — a dissident-playwright character — and wrote him into a trilogy of plays; several other dramatists (including Tom Stoppard) featured versions of the figure in scripts of their own, in homage to Havel. So Galbraith (the artistic director of the Alliance for New Music-Theatre) is working in an honorable tradition. In the dreamlike and slightly knotty “Vaněk Unleashed,” we see Vaněk (Drew Valins) behind bars, engaging in awkward conversations during visits from his wife, Eva (Pamela Bierly Jusino). At other times, he seems to muse on how to survive in a totalitarian system, and he ponders the existential terrors of freedom.
As Saylor’s score ranges stylistically — sometimes recalling silent-movie accompaniments, sometimes marshaling oddball kazoo and percussion sounds, sometimes evoking cabaret, jazz and art songs — Valins’s Vaněk confronts specters such as a carefree hedonist (Ron Heneghan) and the pink-tutu-clad Blonde Soprano (opera singer Meghan McCall, unleashing her gorgeous voice). The spare scenic design (prison grates, a wooden table, a screen that sometimes relays silent-movie-style captions) adds to the phantasmagoric atmosphere. One strobe-lit sequence becomes a Keystone Kops-like chase; at another point, the Blonde Soprano attempts to drown Vaněk in a bathtub. (Musicians from the Snark Ensemble provided live accompaniment early in the run; a recorded version of the ensemble’s work has been used subsequently, including at the reviewed performance.)
Many theatergoers will find “Unveiling” — which also features Valins as an aptly bemused Vaněk — to be the more accessible and enjoyable half of the bill. As Vera and Michael, Galbraith and Heneghan exude the right air of cartoonish conceit. And what conceit! To Vaněk’s horror, after showing off their antiques and boasting about their kid’s intelligence, the spouses attempt to demonstrate the superior quality of their sex lives. Michael starts by donning a pig mask and crawling toward his wife in a suggestive fashion. Calling all etiquette columnists! What kind of thank-you note should a guest write after an evening like this?
Wren is a freelance writer.
“Vaněk Unleashed,” devised, scripted and directed by Susan Galbraith, based on Havel’s “Letters to Olga;” music, Maurice Saylor; production design, Robert Darling.
“Unveiling,” by Havel, translated by Jan Novak, directed by Miřenka Čechová; original lighting, sound design and technical execution by Martin Špetlík and Robert Janč, reconfigured by Darling. Produced by Duane Gelderloos. Two hours. Tickets: $20-$30. Through Sunday at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Visit www.newmusictheatre.org or call 202-966-3104.