Stages

Review: Vaclav Havel’s The Memo at Organic Theater Portrays Government as Farce With Fedoras

Moses and Thakrar as Balas and Kubs. Photo by Anna Gelman.

The overture begins: It’s the March of the File Folders, which might be titled the Office Supply Hustle. The cast of 11, smartly dressed in varieties of business garb, march briskly on to and around the stage, placing office materials on the desks in the government office. It’s a signal, in case one was needed, that Vaclav Havel’s 1965 play, The Memo, is going to be a satire on bureaucracy. There are moments when the pieces don’t fit together perfectly, but it’s a fun evening at the theater–as long as you have patience for farce and confusion.

Organic Theater Company is staging the play by the Czech playwright/statesman in a second floor studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Crisply directed by Bryan Wakefield, the story centers on the effort to make the government more efficient by adopting a new constructed language, called Ptydepe. (In the notes I took during the play, I spelled it phonetically as “ptiopy.”) Naturally, the new language adoption has exactly the opposite effect, despite energetic classes led by Mr. Brown (Nick Bryant), who, mysteriously, has a southern U.S. accent. Eventually, it becomes clear that no one can learn Ptydepe and thus no one can translate the memo written in that language.

Rogers as Gross. Photo by Anna Gelman.

The one possibly rational person is the office is Gross (Trish Rogers), who is deputy director of the agency as the play opens. She arrives wearing a red fedora and a proper navy blue trouser suit; she shuffles papers at her desk in the severely designed office. Agency director Balas (Joel Moses) lurks in the doorway in his garish blue/green/white plaid three-piece suit. Shadowing him, as he will in every scene, is Kubs (Subhash Thakrar), who never speaks but only nods or shakes his head in agreement or disagreement. Kubs also never removes his homburg.

Speaking of hats, everyone arrives in the office wearing a hat—a bowler, homburg or fedora (sometimes wide-brimmed or sometimes straw), which is immediately deposited on a hatrack at the office entrance. Remarkably, no one forgets to don or deposit his or her hat upon arrival or departure. And then there are the fire extinguishers, which are part of every executive’s gear.

Representatives of other agencies are consulted but all of these executives—Kunc (Kate Black Spence), Masat (Schanora Wimpie), Kalous (Stephanie Sullivan) and Talaura (Laura Sturm) are really more concerned with lunch than Ptydepe. When Gross is demoted from deputy, she’s given the job of the Monitor, spying on every office through a peephole. The term Orwellian doesn’t fit here, however, because the government in The Memo is not the evil repressive one portrayed in Orwell’s 1984, but one that is simply silly and incompetent.

The Memo has many characteristics of farce, such as frequent quick exits and entrances, repeated phrases and actions, the hat shtick, and language turned into nonsense. Havel was probably influenced by the work of Ionesco, so we can rejoice in the fact that we can see three divinely absurdist plays in Chicago this month. Organic’s The Memo, Red Orchid’s The Killing Game by Ionesco and Trap Door’s The Killer by Ionesco, which opens May 30.

Spence, Sturm and Wimpie as Kunc, Talaura and Masat. Photo by Anna Gelman.

Paul Wilson is translator of the 2006 version of the script. Jeremy W. Floyd gets a special mention as costume designer for creating the amazing array of trouser suits, accessories and headwear. Scenic design is by Terrence McClellan with lighting by David Goodman Edberg and props by Justin Torres. M. Anthony Reimer is sound designer and composer.

Vaclav Havel wrote The Memo before the Prague Spring, when Communism in Czechoslovakia was more lax than it would become under strong Soviet rule. The Memo was published then but Havel’s work was banned later. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1889 until the country’s dissolution in 1992 and then as the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. He died in 2011 at 75. His writing includes dozens of plays, poetry collections and nonfiction.

The Memo by Organic Theater Company continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., through June 16. Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes  (15-20 minutes too long, I’d say) with one intermission. Tickets are $30 ($21 for students, seniors and industry) for performances Wednesday-Sunday.

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