Monday, January 27, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "The Orange Door" (on Václav Havel's Largo desolato)

the orange door
by Douglas Messerli

Václav Havel Largo desolato (translated from the Czech by Tom Stoppard) / Frédérique Michel (director) / I saw I production with Thérèse Bachand at the City Garage, Santa Monica, California, on January 24, 2020

Václav Havel's 1984 play, Largo desolato, concerns a series of semi-autobiographical events that reminds one of numerous works regarding the paranoid world of Soviet-influenced spies and intrusive governmental officials that, in turn, takes us back to another Czech (Bohemian)-born writer, Franz Kafka. Havel’s play is absolutely haunted by Kafka’s own figures, terrified that a sudden knock on the door—in this production, a bright orange door, which might be said to even suggest the orange prison costumes worn by today’s inmates—in which they might be taken away to incarceration. In Havel’s case, it happened, and this play written after his 1984 release was soon after translated by the great British, former Czech writer, Tom Stoppard.
     Leopold Nettles (Kopřiva in the original, in this production performed by Troy Dunn, a veteran on this company’s works) is a philosopher, professor, and author of other texts, who has reason to be terrified. Not only has he recently published a rather controversial text, but he is also haunted by his several women lovers, whom—because of his increasingly insecurity and neurotic behavior—come and go with the repetitive patterns of Nettle’s own neuroses.
     This play, in fact, is structured according to the professor’s repetitive actions—a jump to the couch where he hugs its pillows, leaps to peer through the peep-hole of his orange door, and his often uneventrul, non-committal relationships with his apparently live-in companion/perhaps wife, Suzana (Emily Asher Kellis), his current lover Lucy (Angela Beyer), and a young female philosophy student, Marguerite (Marissa DuBois), all-too-ready to try to seduce him, which results in an extreme case of coitus interruptus.
      Along with these female comings and goings, are the visits of male friends and colleagues, Edward and Bertram (performed by Gifford Irvine and Trace Taylor) and the papermill workers, simply identified as “Two Sidneys” (Anthony Sannazzaro and Aaron Bray), all of whom admire what the philosopher has written. It might be remembered that in East Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and other Communist controlled countries of the day, limiting the supplies of paper was a way to control authors and publishers from expressing their viewpoints. Without paper the free press could simply not exist, so the gift of stacks of paper they leave behind is a profound statement of their caring.
      We don’t ever quite discover what this supposedly great man has actually written, and when we do get some clues about his writings, it appears to be int the vein of the empty 1960s pap about free-living and loving. He may not be the profound thinker that even he imagines himself to be.
      When the governmental authorities actually do knock on his door, described in Stoppard’s script simply as “Two Chaps” (again performed by Sannazzaro and Bray), they do not so much outwardly threaten him with arrest as beg him to take away his name from his most recent manuscript in order to help them keep him out of imprisonment.
      What they are truly asking, obviously, is for the philosopher to give up his very identity, to deny who he really is and what he has spoken. For any true thinker it is the most devastating request that might ever be made.
      Even if my review here is not necessarily a profound statement, to deny me my own commentary would be to deny the thinking I am currently trying to accomplish. It would be to deny me the possibility to think. It would mean that as a human being I no longer was given the opportunity to explore my own mind.
       But Nettles, unlike the author of this work who was imprisoned, cannot quite show his mettle—or for that matter the nettles, the thorny improbabilities thinking entails. He simply postpones his decision to wipe his name from the slate of his life-time actions.
       By the time he finally determines that he cannot agree to the offer of the “Two Chaps,” the thugs the government has sent to correct his behavior, they can assure him that his decision no longer matters (“for the time being”) such his own fears and neuroses have now rendered him meaningless. His inabilities to immediately respond prove their presumptions that he is no longer a true threat, since is can no longer write anything.
       My theater-going companion for this performance, Thérèse Bachand, wrote me, after, that this play reminded her somewhat of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others, and she is right. The Stassi investigations of the central character and his lover in that film certainly tingles the spine in the same way that Havel’s earlier play does.
       Yet, the characters in the film are basically innocent, and a single moral figure, listening into their lives, perceives it and saves, if not the drug-needy girlfriend, the playwright who has done nothing but report about the number of lives lost because of the same kind of unnecessary entry into their daily living.
       In this play, Nettles, no matter how innocent is his writing, is no moral model of his own beliefs, and in the process of his moral decay makes it unnecessary for the state to act against him. Von Donnersmarck’s figure, even at film’s end, remains a potent force that, even if unintentionally, helped to bring down the East German government.
       Havel’s frightened character, much like Kafka’s perplexed and desperate men and women, only contributes to the paranoiac world in which he is entrapped. As both Suzana and Lucy suggest, Nettles is a man of no true commitment. He seeks women and others merely as a relief from his own delusions.
       While von Donnersmarck’s film seems to call for a continuation of order, Václev Havel’s play is a call for action, a demand that one stand behind one’s own thinking and behavior, particularly if it stands opposed to governmental interference. In other words, that the thinkers transcend that orange door and enter the world in which they live.
        I truly think that today we need to make those important distinctions. Fear and trembling is no answer for a world in such terrible disorder; as Søren Kierkegaard long ago argued, the moral among us must make a “leap into faith.”

Los Angeles, January 27, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2020).

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