Theater in a barrel, perhaps a production first, is currently on stage at La Mama in the form of Audience, an absurdist play by onetime dissident and later president of Czechoslovakia Václav Havel. This jewel of a show combines human and puppet performers in an ingenious portrayal of the impact of authoritarian regimes. Brought to life in a delightful production by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater and starring and directed with reverence for the text by Vit Hořejš, this 1975 piece is still highly relevant today.
Following a short newsreel-style video introduction to refresh memories of the historical context of Audience, the show opens with Havel’s alter ego Ferdinand Vanek rolling a wooden beer barrel onto the stage. The play draws on Havel’s stint working in a brewery in the 1970s, his punishment for writing plays that criticized the oppressive Communist regime after the Prague Spring. Vanek, played with apparent resignation to his fate by Hořejš, notices the sound of snores emanating from the barrel. He opens the barrel into two halves to reveal a figure folded into pretzel form inside. This, we soon learn, is the brew master, Vanek’s new boss, played by Theresa Linnihan in an outstanding performance. And in addition to the two actors, we meet their marionette doppelgangers. Each character manipulates a puppet of themself throughout the entire play (puppet design by Miloš Kasal and Jakub “Kuba” Krejčí). The barrel, in Alan Barnes Netherton’s production design, becomes a microcosm of both the brewery and Czechoslovakia—a barrel shaped dollhouse, if you will, that serves as set (for the puppets), seats, beer table, and more for the characters. We witness the wider world and other workers in the brewery through mechanical marionettes on other “floors” of the brewery, all inside the barrel. Above the live action centered around the barrel are two screens, one displaying surveillance footage of the brewery and the other live closeups of the miniature figures in the miniature stage of the barrel.
Vanek has been summoned by the brew master for an ostensibly friendly chat over beer. As the circular and increasingly threatening meeting proceeds, the brew master teases, demeans, and bullies Vanek. The brew master represents the newly empowered proletariat, dismissive of the intellectual elite, and Vanek’s tenure in the job is at his new boss’s discretion. But the brew master himself is beholden to another, unnamed higher power, who has charged him with spying on Vanek. The beer flows, leading to the inevitable inebriation and the need for bathroom breaks. Then something curious happens. Each time the brew master goes to relieve himself, he comes back with a larger puppet version of himself, as if the beer emboldens him to greater abuses of power. Vanek’s puppet self, on the other hand, remains small enough to perch on the edge of the glass mug that his boss keeps refilling, as do the other puppets in the brewery/barrel. Each time a co-worker in fermentation is derided by the brew master, we see his tiny figure drunkenly pop up from a tiny barrel. A famous Czech pop singer, whom Vanek knows from his former life in the arts, is also an object of fascination for the brew master; every time he mentions her, we see her doll-like form dance in the barrel. All this micro action is livestreamed on one big screen.
As the conversation and the beer flow, Vanek keeps his cool and maintains a placid deference, much to the irritation of his boss. As the latter’s marionette-self grows ever larger, he finally summons up the courage to make an onerous demand. He asks Vanek to inform on himself by writing weekly reports for the brew master to send to the higher-ups. “You would have control over what they know,” he offers in feeble justification. Vanek declines and as the tables turn, the balance of power continues to be reflected in the size of the puppets.
The barrel and puppets are charming and humorous, but they also illuminate the claustrophobia and manipulation of the oppressive regime. The absurdity of the brew master’s demand points to the futility of suppressing opposing opinions and the value of open political debate based on facts.