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ON STAGE : 'THE MEMORANDUM' : Prague to Gold Coast : A political satire by the Czechoslovakian head of state opens Friday in Santa Barbara.

November 01, 1990|ANN VAN DER VEER

"Hrum-hrum"

As I sat clutching my phone in Santa Barbara, listening to the ring coming from Bradcany Castle, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, images from news stories ran through my mind. New Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel has replaced bad socialist paintings throughout the castle with avant-garde nudes. He greets stiff-collared diplomats in his uniform of jeans and sweater. Often accompanied by a ponytailed bodyguard, his favorite form of transportation down the miles of castle corridors is a child's scooter. A shy intellectual, he has often greeted journalists by waving a daffodil.

The phone rings. No answer. Czechoslovakia is eight hours ahead, maybe they don't get up early at the palace.

Havel's satirical political comedy, "The Memorandum," is opening Friday at the Garvin Theater. Director Judy Garey seems to have had no better luck getting through to Havel than I have. When I dropped in at a rehearsal she told me, "We wrote President Havel a letter inviting him to the production. But I doubt he will come, he has a country to run."

Until May, Havel was imprisoned in a Czech jail as a political dissident. "The Memorandum" and all his other plays had been banned throughout the communist bloc since 1968. In a stroke of fate more dramatic than one a writer could invent, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia last December.

"It's not my real job," he said. "This was not my choice, but I accept it."

His "real job" is that of poet and master playwright. And Gold Coast audiences will get their first opportunities to see a local production of a Havel play with the Garvin Theater production.

"It's a tough play to do, to make it accessible to the audience. It's a comedy, but it's not like a Neil Simon comedy, where it's all out there," Garey said.

"It's about a repressive regime in Eastern Europe. It's theater of the absurd in the sense that the characters are one-dimensional cogs in the wheel of bureaucracy. But it's not true theater of the absurd, because it makes sense. It has a concrete storyline. And it's positive. The ending is hopeful. Most of all it's funny, because it could be about IBM, or Sears, or the school system, or any bureaucracy."

The plot of "The Memorandum" concerns the introduction of a mathematically precise synthetic language, Ptydepe, at the headquarters of a vast corporation. Ptydepe is designed to eliminate the human, emotional flaws in communication. The most commonly used word, "whatever," has two letters, while the least commonly used word, "wombat," has 319 letters. But no one can learn the language, and no business can progress until all memos are translated. A massive Kafkaesque bureaucratic snarl ensues, with petty office intrigues, coup d'etats, and blackmail, all witnessed by the official office spy, who crawls out of his small door backward, like an ominous cockroach.

There are three sets on stage, and though only one may be lit at a time, stage business is continuing on all three simultaneously--making it seem like a three-ring circus. "It was a very complex piece to block," Garey said. "There's always a primary focus and a secondary focus. The repetitions, of language and action, are rhythmical. It's an artistic challenge to keep them from becoming dull."

Garey has a good track record with artistic challenges. A 15-year veteran on the staff of the Santa Barbara City College theater department, she won national recognition as a director with her production of "Biloxi Blues." In a field of 700 entries, the production was presented the 1988 American College Theatre Festival award at the Kennedy Center in Washington. She continues her association with ACTF, now as a regional adjudicator.

The ring is interrupted by a soft Czech voice. I explain that I am a member of the International Assn. of Theatre Critics, and I am calling the castle on theater business.

"President Havel is in Moravia, not in the castle today," the voice says. I am asked to "pause."

Soon, Havel's old friend and new cultural adviser, Petr Oslzly, is on the wire. It's a well-known name in the international theater community. Although he has an office in the castle by day, by night he is the director of Theatre-Na-Provazku ("Theater on a String") in Prague. The first thing I want to know is if Havel is writing any new plays.

"He was writing one for my theater, for November. But he has had to put it aside half-finished. The situation here is very difficult now. He must go from early in the morning until late at night with his presidential duties."

Pressed for the subject and title of the new play, Oslzly laughed. "No title yet, because half-finished."

And as for his hoped-for presence at the Garvin premiere: "President Havel regrets he cannot attend in California. He may visit the United States February of next year, but the date is not fixed."

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