When you live in a repressive regime, how do you live with yourself?
Directors Cheryl Fararone and Richard Romagnoli explore this question through two thematically mirrored plays in PTP/NYC’s season this year. Billed as a season of “works that resonate with our cultural and political moment,” Havel: The Passion of Thought and Dogg’s Hamlet/Cahoot’s Macbeth are both comedies that pack a punch. They each have a dark undertone to their otherwise comic plots. (Or vice-versa; the production and text meld mirth and sadness so seamlessly that it seems reductive to choose.)
HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT follows Vaclav Havel’s alter-ego Vanek as he struggles to return to his life after imprisonment by the Czech government for dissidence. In a series of loosely connected one-acts, he holds fast to his values and watches the compromises that others make. In perhaps one of the most gut-wrenching scenes, Havel asks his friend, a former dissident, to sign a letter of protest, an act that could destroy her life but save someone in need of help. It’s immediately clear what she’ll do, but the internal struggle is at least as compelling as the external plot. Havel’s script and Richard Romagnoli’s direction brilliantly balance the dour circumstances with some hilarious moments throughout the production, such as when Vanek’s superficial friends beg him, zombie-like, to stay for just one more drink and watch them make love.
Meanwhile, DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH is at least as funny, though far more absurd. The premise is that a group of school children who speak only a made-up language named Dogg perform Hamlet in English, which they do not understand. It’s based on a philosophical argument whereby two people can appear to speak the same language, but perceive different meanings from it. Don’t feel like you understand the premise? Don’t worry. Cheryl Fararone directs with such wonderful physicality and slapstick humor that your enjoyment of the evening need not depend on an understanding of the philosophy (though at least a passing familiarity with Hamlet may aid your appreciation). Stoppard takes a tongue-in-cheek approach, having the characters cheerfully greet each other with, “Useless git,” to the confusion of a poor English-speaking lorry driver who happens by. By the end of the play, you’ll feel like you understand Dogg too.
This leads into Cahoot’s Macbeth, a one-act in which an illegal living room production of Macbeth is intercepted by the authorities. Many works of literature and plays were banned by the government, terrified that they’d encourage dissidence. Stoppard wrote Cahoot’s Macbeth after visiting Havel shortly after his release from prison in 1977, twinning PTP/NYC’s two productions.
Stoppard and Havel were writing about Czechoslovakia in the 70s and 80s, when you could be arrested for simply possessing a copy of Macbeth. However, it’s not too hard to see ourselves reflected in these times when calls for censorship are rampant, even on the left. With the 2020 election around the corner, these plays are a much-needed wakeup call. Though they’re not the lightest fare, the comic moments and slapstick act as a spoonful of sugar.
If you have time, I’d highly recommend seeing both Dogg’s Hamlet and Havel: Passion of Thought. But if you only have time for one, you can’t go wrong with either.
Dogg’s Hamlet/Cahoot’s Macbeth runs now through August 3. Havel: Passion of Thought runs now through August 4. For tickets and more information, visit http://PTPNYC.org.