COSTA MESA — In spite of the lumbering beginning, John Ferzacca's production of Larry Shue's "Wenceslas Square" at Orange Coast College is as taut as a coiled spring.
It could have been a ho-hum production, a supposed euphoric homecoming of sorts neutralized by a bare-bones stage setting that was lit as if underwater and populated by players mouthing scripts without reading between the lines. But little by little, it picked up steam and, in an unexpected way, became a cliffhanger, leading to a powerful and inexorable conclusion.
Shue explores the difference that six years can make; specifically, the contrast between the Czechoslovakia of 1968 and that of 1974. In 1968, Vince (Quintin Spencer Powell) is an American college professor who is doing research on the newly flowering Czech theater and who gets caught up in the euphoria of the Prague Spring uprising against the country's Communist leadership. Putting finishing touches on his book, he carries that same enthusiasm back to Czechoslovakia in 1974, long after the Soviet Union had quashed the Czechs' bold attempt at freedom. Obviously, things are not the same, as we learn from Vince's former translator, Katya (Susan Tripp).
Framed by the bleak, Kafkaesque stage setting, Katya, with Tripp's well-contrived Czech accent, informs Vince of the heavy-handed Soviet crackdown on practically everything: All is shrouded in secrecy. Vince considers scrapping his book because the foreword is written by an "enemy of the state," and such association would compromise many of Vince's friends.
If only Vince could find his friends. The local theatrical scene has been decimated. One friend directs Russian plays in the provinces; another, Langer (Steven R. Castillo), has sold out and is doing propaganda movies.
Vince's companion on the trip is Dooley (Peter Roche), a dental technician from Cementville, Ind. Roche's wide-eyed energy well serves the role of Vince's confidant. Ostensibly there as a photographer, Dooley makes asides to the audience that serve as commentary on what is happening around them. He retains his buoyant spirit because, unlike Vince, he hadn't witnessed the remarkable Prague Spring and thus didn't know how far these people had fallen.
We see the gradual deflation of Vince's enthusiasm--Powell's initially confident delivery and joyful strut become more labored, more depressed--at the grim outcome of the Prague Spring.
Still, as noted by Katya and reflected by Vince through Dooley, it is hard to believe that all this could have come as that much of a surprise to him. There was, after all, the press, the telephone and the mail system to keep him in touch with his Czech colleagues. Unless, of course, censorship pried into every nook and cranny. In which case, the play's sudden, lights-off ending successfully parallels the outcome of the Soviets' Big Freeze, making its conclusion all the more chilling.
An Orange Coast College department of theater arts production of the Larry Shue play. Directed by John Ferzacca. With Peter Roche, Quintin Spencer Powell, Susan Tripp, Cage Beals, Mary Roberts, Toni Cafaro, William Meadows, Steven R. Castillo, Michael Nottingham, Donna Jovanovic, Weston Taussig-Roche, Julianne Reisenfeld and Robert Williams. Original music and sound design: Mike Patrick. Lighting: David Dunbrack. Set design: David Scaglione. Technical director: Rick Golson. Assistant director: Chris Uhl. Stage manager: Gia Princeton. Plays Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. At Robert B. Moore Theater, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $5 to $6. (714) 432-5880.