In Czechloslovakia of the 1960s optimism about the eventual socialist utopia was the official philosophy and socialist realism was the accepted literary approach. Vaclav Havel’s absurdist play "The Garden Party" was a full frontal attack on both. Liminal Spaces in cooperation with the Bloomington Area Arts Council are presenting the play in the intimate Rose Firebay of the John Waldron Arts Center in a production directed by Don Johnson. Saturday night’s audience was treated to an insightful post show talk by Professor Bronislava Volkova.
In Western Europe, absurdism was deeply pessimistic. In plays like AWaiting for Godot’ or "The Bald Soprano" the empty meaninglessness of life was not the result of any specific cause. Things were hopless, there was no thing to be fixed. In Czechloslavakia absurdism was a tool of rebellion. In Vaclav Havel’s "The Garden Party" from 1963 the play had the wildly off kilter absurdist balance of the comic and the pathetic, but there was a twist. The Czech playwright wrote it and even more the Czech audience saw it, as a trenchant critique of Stalinism.
The dialogue is a mad series of mangled folk sayings, cobbled together lines from different poems that don’t go together and scraps of socialist slogans and political pamphlets. John Mercer as a concerned father counsels: "Why stick your nose into the hedge when you know the robin dances alone." His wife, Peggy Tirey, is always asking about time and bells that she expects, which never ring, while bells that she doesn’t expect do ring. Heather Christian as an attractively peppy, but emptily energetic official says that she’s not like the old phrasemongers. She’s a young one with a sense of humor. Her trenchant comment is that "Nothing foreign is human to me."
The lovelies, Lindsey Baumgartner and Allison Wardell, play a couple of minor officials who are at their happiest when mindlessly stamping different documents. Their chief concern is the choice of dance floor A or C as sites for the garden party’s "self entertainment with aids to amusement." Bob Baird is the befuddled titular director, the "Skipper." He dutifully surrenders his clothes to the operations of segment AA" as he hopes for the quick arrival of the results from operation AC" in vain expectation that this will lead to the more efficient completion of operation AB." John O’Brien plays the dutiful son, a sort of bland "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" character. His character succeeds by simply parroting back the phrases that people offer. The height of this political Tower of Babel in "The Garden Party" is reached with the shadowy Bureaus of Liquidation and Inauguration. The possibility of liquidating inaugurating liquidating inaugurating liquidation is close to the end of the discussion.
From time to time Abby Rock appears as a foxy messenger with lines that flow in contradiction with only poetic connections. The only character in "The Garden Party" who never talks is the family’s black sheep and potential bourgeois intellectual played by Mathew Zaradich. Zaradich never says a word and although he doesn’t rise in the empty political or social realm of "The Garden Party," he does get the foxy messenger.
Characters in "The Garden Party" exist only in what they say. There is a lot of dialogue and much of it is nonsensical. In addition the interweaving of speeches are complex. It seems inevitable that there will be some memory slips and timing problems. Realizing the humor of this piece, and absurdism especially in the optimistic service of satire can be very funny, is a tricky business. The production directed by Don Johnson often succeeds and overall gives us a great opportunity to view this window into a critique of world that no longer exists, but whose excesses in the form of logic and rationalism based on bogus premises are always with us.
The Bloomington Area Arts Council and Liminal Spaces production of Vaclav Havel’s "The Garden Party" at the John Waldron Arts Center plays Fridays and Saturdays at eight and Sundays at two through December seventh.