Office Space on Downers: THE MEMORANDUM

Photo credit: Flat Earth Theatre; a normal day at the office.

Photo credit: Flat Earth Theatre; a normal day at the office.

presented by Flat Earth Theatre

By Václav Havel
Translated by Vera Blackwell
Directed by Victoria Rose Townsend

Arsenal Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA
January 11th – 19th, 2013
Flat Earth Theatre Facebook Page

Review by Craig Idlebrook

If Václav Havel’s life is any indication, it may wise not to let your biography get more interesting than your scripts. The Czech playwright went from a persecuted critic of Communism to his country’s first freely-elected president. His play, The Memorandum, here translated by Vera Blackwell, now often inevitably is viewed through that lens.

The plot, which follows the leader of an unnamed company struggling with a subordinate’s attempt to create a new inter-office language, can very easily be seen as Havel’s self-indictment of his political life. The company head, Josef Gross (Jim Remmes), is a humanist who vainly tries to resist the idiocy of the entrenched bureaucracy, but he ultimately makes too many moral compromises to affect change. However, the play was first produced in 1965, during the height of the Iron Curtain and is squarely a protest play against an established regime.

It must have been an effective irritant against the Communist regime at the time, but the script doesn’t age well. With its circular plot about a struggle through absurd layers of bureaucracy, the play does more than anything I’ve seen to show that humanity’s evolution flatlined the first time our ancestors decided to take a meeting. It’s a fine exercise of a script, but when staged the action becomes laborious and esoteric.

Havel does not make it easy for his intended actors, and it takes a lot of directorial effort by Victoria Rose Townsend to keep this production afloat. The play hums along whenever Townsend embraces the open-door-slam-door farce that Havel throws as an umbrella to shield audiences from despair, but the action grinds down when the actors must spew reams of nonsense that they must swallow as reason.

Understandably, few of the cast seem able to walk the line between the play’s absurdist and bleak tendencies while maintaining vivid characters. A notable exception is Kevin E. Parise as Savant, a socially-challenged expert in the new language. Parise’s character is unsettlingly familiar in Boston as an oily intellectual who forgot to develop social skills, and his performance is punctuated with the dangerous hairpin turns between calm and rage that Havel’s script requires.

Watching this play can be sweet validation for anyone who has sat through a staff meeting, but be prepared to have it be just as irritating.

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