There are many challenges inherent in staging any work by Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. Plot elements are stripped to their bare essentials, becoming almost abstracted; themes and bits of text are introduced and recycled in a music-like structure; the desperate humor of the work is born out of a general atmosphere of paranoia and helplessness. There is little room in these plays for sloppy staging or garbled lines. Havel's texts are highly polished surfaces in which any stumble will be difficult to disguise.
Spring Theatreworks proved themselves very much up to the challenge with their impressive production of Havel's Largo Desolato. Employing flawless timing and unflagging energy, they brought this funny and frightening play to life with an engaging enthusiasm and a too-rare level of discipline. The performances were uniformly superb. Doug Simpson brought a beleaguered Everyman quality to the role of Professor Leopold Nettles, an influential philosopher who has published an essay that may get him in a lot of trouble. He showed a flair for comic timing but didn't allow that to compromise the palpable sense of fear as he obsessively checked the door for the arrival of the thought police. Chad Afanador and Matthew Drennan played two sets of twin-like characters who alternately encourage and intimidate Professor Nettles. They were the production's clearest embodiment of this company's ensemble approach, moving simultaneously, building characters around each other's mannerisms, never stepping on each other's moments but always ready to jump in and keep the pace moving. Karen Allen's Lucy was in some ways the emotional center of the play, bringing a softer sadness and romantic vulnerability to the situation, but she never allowed this to slow down the production as a whole. Cody Landis brought just the right sense of self-importance and faux concern to his portrayal of Bertram, a friend who stops by in the middle of the night to offer unsolicited advice. Sarah Cameron Sundae charmed the audience as thoroughly as she charmed Leopold with her portrayal of Marguerite, a schoolgirl student of philosophy whose unquestioning belief in her idol becomes nearly as intimidating as the scorn of those who seek to silence him. Also featured were Erin Treadway and David Wylie.
The placement of the furniture in Jason Brandt's set was somewhat static and obvious, but the walls, pasted together from pages of text, were extremely effective, particularly when rendered translucent by Matt Gratz's elegant lighting. Tara Ferri's costumes were conceived and executed with intelligence and aesthetic consistency, contributing to the sense of place and effectively communicating information about each character to the audience.
Director Steven Gridley deserves credit not only for turning his attention to such a worthy play, but for building a cohesive ensemble from his talented cast, encouraging discipline and specificity without compromising their sense of play. In their second season, Spring Theatreworks is clearly a company worth keeping an eye on, and promises to prove a welcome addition to New York's Off-Off theatre scene.
Lighting: 2/Sound: 1
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Copyright 2002 Frank Episale