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Theatre in Review: The Pig (Untitled Theatre Company #61/3-Legged Dog)

Katherine Boynton, Moira Stone, and Terence Stone. Photo: Arthur Cornelius

The program for The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig, says that it is neither a play nor an operetta, even though it has elements of both; instead, it is best understood as a collage. And, may I say, it is an especially tasty one.

This is because the price of your ticket includes langos, the Czech version of a wrap, loaded with pulled pork or vegetables, along with drinks ranging from water to Czech beer, and a chocolate treat. A lower ticket price is offered, for seating only, but if I were you, I'd spring for the food. The pulled pork is thoroughly delicious, and if you need additional nourishment, pretzels and more drinks are available on an ŕ la carte basis. It's the downtown version of dinner theatre, a thoroughly original and unexpected treat.

The rest of the evening, a tripartite entertainment, is admittedly uneven but provides a fascinating immersion in the world of 20th-century Czech culture, a fraught cocktail of art and politics. First up is a concert by Cabaret Metropol, an ensemble that specializes in the classic songs of European cabaret. Performed in various languages, the program consists of a series of attractively world-weary ballads about the woeful state of the world; the final number includes a sing-along that clues the audience in on a few key Czech words.

The main event is the title offering, a 1987 piece by Havel that was printed only in samizdat form until a few years ago. (Edward Einhorn has adapted it with considerable freedom, with Havel's permission.) A comic tale about Havel's labyrinthine search for a pig for a zabíjacka, a traditional rural event in which a pig is slaughtered and served in a feast, it is really a coded account of life under Soviet rule, depicted here as a nightmare of bureaucratic delays and black market dealings. It is also a statement about the non-person status of dissidents in a totalitarian society. Scenes of Havel's constantly frustrating pig hunt are interspersed with excerpts from Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride, depicting a far more idyllic vision of the Czech countryside. (The members of the cast double as musicians, John Doyle-style.) Adding an additional farcical element is an American television news reporter who dogs Havel (she calls him "VAY-klav HAY-vel"), asking idiotic questions and generally making a pest of herself. The cast is followed by a cameraman who shoots the action, which is then projected on all four walls of the theatre; he is accompanied by a sinister man in a black suit, who is obviously a representative of the secret police. The video broadcast features a crawl reporting news events from 1987, including Ronald Reagan's nomination of Douglas Ginsberg to the Supreme Court; when the cameras focus on the reporter (broadly played by Katherine Boynton), she is underlined with snappy, reductive headlines like "Pig Panic" and "Pig Pandemonium." Although thematically very much of a piece with other Havel works, such as The Memorandum, it is a rather oddball collection of elements, although it rises to a shocking climax when the reporter asks a too-frank question and the power is abruptly cut.

A lively after-show party consists of the company performing songs by the Velvet Underground, the cult rock band that was beloved of Czech dissidents in the '60s. (An especially attention-getting note in the program states that Havel once told Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground front man, "Did you know I was president because of you?") These numbers, including "I'm Waiting for the Man," "I'll Be Your Mirror," and "All Tomorrow's Parties," are especially infectious, although a slight adjustment to the sound design would help to place the singers' voices more solidly on top of the instrumentals.

In any case, the mostly young cast is delightful, whether striking world-weary cabaret poses, acting out Havel's little black joke of a story, joining their voices in lush operatic harmony, or partying on to the tunes of Lou Reed. Robert Honeywell, who plays Havel and looks surprisingly like the man himself, provides the evening with a solid anchor in addition to offering a kicky rendition of "I'm Waiting for the Man." Henry Akona's direction imposes a welcome discipline on a program that could all too easily have descended into chaos.

The same is true of the production design. Christopher Heilman's set design, which places the audience on all four sides of an open playing area, includes a four-sided frame that hangs over the action and serves as projection screens. The video designer, Cory Einbinder, covers these and the surrounding walls with images of Czech posters (both commercial and political) as well as the live video feed that sparks the action. Carla Gant's costumes, Jeff Nash's lighting, and James Sadler, Jr.'s sound are all solid.

As a kind of mini-festival celebrating Havel and the circumstances that shaped him, The Pig wraps up food, drink, music, and politics into a memorable one-of-a-kind experience. Cheers -- or as they say in Prague, "Na zdravi." --David Barbour


(11 March 2014)

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