Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Performing Revolution: Velvet Oratorio

On November 9th, world leaders past and present converged on Berlin to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, our own president was not sufficiently interested to attend. In contrast, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has found the fall of the wall and the subsequent revolutions that swept the Communist Bloc worthy of five months of special programming. Incorporating drama, film, dance, and literature, the Performing Revolution series came to Bohemia National Hall last night for the Untitled Theater Company’s production of Velvet Oratorio, a dramatic hybrid chronicling the events of then Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.

Incorporating primary sources including contemporary news accounts, official statements of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and declassified CIA and State Department cables, as well of scenes from Vaclav Havel’s Vánek plays and original interviews conducted by librettist Edward Einhorn, Oratorio presents an impressionistic but informative overview of the heady days of the Revolution. As the play opens, Ferdinand Vánek, Havel’s literary alter-ego, is in police custody yet again, but this time his interrogator is a bit nervous. Since he has been confined to a cell, the writer has not heard the news sweeping the across Eastern Europe—the Wall has fallen.

While Vánek again serves as a stand-in for his creator, we do hear from one specific historical figure, American Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, who Oratorio depicts as quite an effective and relatively proactive diplomat. On the other hand, the unnamed Communist Party spokesman comes across as a “Baghdad Bob” without the style points. He is nicely brought to life though with appropriate oily insincerity (and increasing uncertainty) by Danny Bowes.

At times, Oratorio has an absurdist bent that would befit some of Stoppard’s work in terms of tone and certainly subject matter. However, Oratorio often ends such scenes with a thoughtful kicker, as when two namesakes of Martin Smid, the mathematics student erroneously reported murdered during the November 17th demonstration, petition Vánek to declare them “alive.”

Musically, Oratorio is imminently respectable, but the odd harmonies and dissonant passages might be a bit challenging for patrons not accustomed to contemporary classical composers. From a shallow musical theater perspective, it also lacks the rousing notes of pure triumph to accompany the Revolution’s peaceful climax.

Unquestionably, Oratorio’s strongest scenes involve Peter Brown as the literary everyman Vánek (again also credit the original creator Havel), particularly when confronting his former interrogator and appealing to the conscience of a former colleague from 1968 who had since joined the government. Indeed, Brown simultaneously conveys compassion and an ironic sensibility that is very Czech.

Oratorio is a well-conceived production that provokes welcomed reflections on the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Communism in general. Twenty years after 1989, within my own lifetime the Czech Republic has been a free country longer than it has been a Soviet Satellite. That is definitely an anniversary worth marking. The UTC’s next free production will be the Czech-themed Rudolf II, beginning March 5th. Performing Revolution continues with programming well into March 2010.