When a director or playwright takes the stage to explain the performance that is about to begin, It’s not usually an auspicious beginning. Edward Einhorn prefaces his adaptation of Václav Havel’s The Pig with the story of the production’s genesis, which put him on intimate terms with Czechoslavakia’s most famous playwright and political figure. Einhorn is evidently at ease with his material and appears ready to expound at length on the project but the actors muscle him off after five minutes or so. For once on these occasions, and especially for anyone unfamiliar with the lengthy production notes or Czech history, it might have been useful to let him finish his thought.
In those notes, Einhorn describes his English adaptation of The Pig as a “collage” and he isn’t being arty or obtuse. The production is the end-product of four different approaches to a single text, beginning with Havel’s real-life story of his thwarted attempt to hold a traditional Czech pig roast. Fashioning his experiences as a dialogue between an American journalist and himself, Havel obliquely pointed up the kafkaesque dysfunctions of life behind the Iron Curtain, in a little noted publication circa 1987. Some twenty years later, for The Pig’s first staging, Czech director Vladimír Morávek used The Bartered Bride, a spirited defense of the Czech motherland penned as a comic opera by the composer Bedřich Smetana in 1863, as an extended metaphor for the absurdist dealings between Prague’s leading intellectual and a whole village that conspires to hang him – and his search for a pig – out to dry.
Einhorn was invited to the play’s premiere in Brno by none other than Havel himself. Inspired to develop his own version for Untitled Theater Company #61, he fleshes out Morávek’s allusions to the Bride by bringing an 11-member cast of musicians and singers on stage to perform pieces of it, with the idea, he writes, that this would make the whole mishmash more understandable for a New York audience. It’s a bet he loses.
The evening begins, however, as a language lesson of sorts, underscoring that there will be a lot of cross-cultural translating ahead. A pre-show by Cabaret Metropole in Czech and English sets the mood in the 3LD Art & Technology Center, which has the spartan feel of a Soviet-era Czech beer hall with folding chairs and tables where the audience can eat grilled Langos (prepared by the Slovakian restaurant Korzo) and drink Pilsner Urquell, served from buckets by beer maids wearing dirndls. There is a tutorial for the ladies on what to call the philandering men in their lives, if they happen to be Czech, and audience participation is encouraged.
Things finally get started with the introduction of another new vocabulary word, zabíjačka – that traditional pig roast – and the arrival of Havel (Robert Honeywell, as a passable double for the poet-president) and the journalist (a preternaturally bouncy Katherine Boynton), whose every move is captured by a trailing cameraman and projected onto the four walls of the performance space. The hunt for the pig leads them from tavern to Prague to countryside but almost immediately intersects the plot of The Bartered Bride, which centers on Marenka (the accomplished Moira Stone, who lends her fine soprano to the role) and Jenik (the young tenor Terence Stone, as her rather stiff lover), leaving the rest of the cast playing the secondary roles in both stories. Cory Einbinder’s video design trains a literal eye on these events, juxtaposing flat, almost colorless fields and cityscapes with CNN-style television reporting, whose scrolling news ticker adds an occasionally absurd flourish to the almost picaresque proceedings: “PRINCESS DIANA HAVING AFFAIR WITH BARTERED BRIDE” or “NAVRATILOVA DEFEATS REAGAN,” etc. Incongruity is par for the course when modern and traditional, liberal and Communist, American and Czech worlds collide; one of the play’s frequent refrains sums up Havel’s frustrations as he attempts to straddle the two: “Irate! Irritated!”
For the rest of us, the profusion of characters, plots and contexts, married to both the show’s tongue-in-cheek register (in Henry Akona’s tirelessly jocular direction) and the conceit of a cable news reportage, risks becoming more of a chore than a pleasure to unravel. And because we are not expected, apparently, to read more than a shaggy-dog tale into Havel’s story, Einhorn crosses all the “t”’s for us, delivering moral and meaning at once in the journalist’s final lines.
You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig, the now infamous (i.e. Obama to Palin) saying goes. As unrest in the former Eastern Bloc countries surges back onto our television screens, this Pig might have benefited from a little less makeup and cameras and a little more of what was on Havel’s mind. On the other hand, to quote another of the chorus’ refrains: “Why not make a celebration?” For an evening where Czech food and music meet NYC irony (with a post-show of Velvet Underground songs performed by the cast), “The Pig” feeds a crowd.