Theatre Review Diary: The Act

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Ben Bradshaw as Mrs. Žila dances in The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

I have decided to add theatre reviews to my blog. Most, if not all, of the plays reviewed will be understandable to an English-speaking audience or will somehow enhance an English speaker’s knowledge of the Czech Republic’s culture and history.

Humor is in full force in the Cimrman English Theatre’s production of The Act, a witty and hilarious comedy brought to life in English translation by British, American and Czech thespians. I thought the group performed well when I saw the second performance they ever staged, The Stand-In, three years ago, but now the professional ensemble performs even the minutest gesture seemingly with ease.

The play is expertly written in Czech by the co-founders of the Jára Cimrman Theatre, Zdeněk Svěrák and Jiří Šebánek as well as Ladislav Smoljak. The Act was the first play in the Czech group’s repertoire, premiering in 1967. It introduced Czechs to the unlucky fictional master of all trades, Jára Cimrman, who was chosen as the Greatest Czech in a survey during 2005. Cimrman was not only a prolific writer of plays and works of other genres but also an inventor, self-taught gynecologist, dentist, world traveler, composer, criminologist and philosopher, among other professions. Many of the plays take place during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s reign over the Czech lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries, though The Act is set in the 1960s.

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The dancing and singing are two excellent reasons to see The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

Cimrman was definitely unlucky: Alexander Graham Bell made it to the patent office just before he did, so Cimrman did not get credit for inventing the telephone. Famous composters stole pieces of Cimrman’s seven-hour operetta Proso and incorporated them into their own works. Cimrman’s writings were discovered during 1966, when a dynamite explosion of a chest in the village of Liptákov scattered his papers, and his creative endeavors were appreciated for the first time.

All the Cimrman plays are divided into two parts. In the first act, the actors play themselves, posing as experts of Jára Cimrman’s life, love of animals, philosophy and inventions, for instance. The actors perform a hilarious scene from Cimrman’s horror play, The Electric Stool, an invention that has a heating spiral and utilizes 360 volts. They perform the skit in witty verse, which is excellently translated into English. An inventor tries to trick his tailor into sitting on the stool so he can find out if it works. His plan backfires, though, and the inventor winds up sitting on the stool and dying.

In the first act spectators also learn of Cimrman’s failed attempt to teach his pet hen Zora to tie his shoes and about Zora’s tragic death. Cimrman the philosopher is the theme of one lecture. His philosophy consists of the idea that the external world exists, but he does not. The actors also explain why spectators will see a big hole shaped like a person in the set’s back wall during the second act. That’s how Cimrman escaped the one performance of this play in his lifetime as it was greeted with a very negative response.

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Ben Bradshaw’s character shines brilliantly in the play. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

In the first act, actors are seated in simple chairs on the stage while one of them speaks at a podium. While the man at the podium tackles a topic concerning Jára Cimrman, the actors in the background also are often interacting with each other silently using gestures and facial expressions as they react to what is being said. Thus, this sort of action in the background complements the action in the foreground, making the lecture part of the play more dynamic and lively. Spectators see how well the actors interact with each other. This is true of the plays in Czech as well.

The second part is the play itself. The plot of The Act revolves around three men who do not think they know each other and seemingly have nothing in common visiting the home of Mr. and Mrs. Žila, who have invited them in order to explain why Mr. Žila (Peter Hosking) never was able to finish his painting of a nude. Their lives are changed forever as they learn secrets about their pasts. Mrs. Žilová (Ben Bradshaw) steals the show with his gestures, facial expressions, dancing and ability to belt back beer. In fact, all the dances are well-choreographed. It is evident that the actors have painstakingly rehearsed the dances. Not only the dancing but also the singing is expertly performed.

Bedřich (Adam Stewart) is very convincing as a man who has done three stints in jail, someone who at first only stays to scarf down the chicken that Mrs. Žilová has prepared for her guests. His thick British accent seems to suit his character.

The other actors are just as convincing – there’s Pepa, the sexologist (Brian Caspe) whom Mrs. Žilová mistakes for a barber because he dons a white doctor’s coat; Mr. Žila, who hit his wife on the forehead with a mallet so she would lose her memory; and Láďa (Curt Matthew), who defecates in his pants whenever he gets very emotional. It is clear that director Michael Pitthan has studied the Czech version down to the minutest detail.

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Mr. Žila and Mrs. Žila with the nude painting. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

During the past several years, the ensemble has gelled into a group that works masterfully together. Teamwork is the key to the success of this production, as the actors seem very comfortable performing with each other. The translation, especially the dialogue in verse and the lyrics of the songs, is top-notch, bringing out the humor of the Czech original.

The Cimrman English Theatre also performs in English three other plays from the Czech Jára Cimrman Theatre’s repertoire – The Stand-in (Záskok), Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního Pólu) and Pub in the Glade (Hospoda na mýtince). My review of the latter play is on www.czechoutyourancestors.com. The English-speaking ensemble has received accolades for their performances in America as well.

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Cimrman English Theatre

Žižkovské Divadlo Járy Cimrmana

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Prague 3 – Žižkov

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Bedřich, played by Adam Stewart, has everyone’s attention. Photo from @CimrmanTheatre.

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The dancing is brilliant. Photo from prague.tv.

 

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Jaroslav Weigel Diary

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Zdeněk Svěrák and Jaroslav Weigel. Photo from Divadelní noviny.

I’ve decided to focus not only on places but also on people in my blog. Unfortunately, this post takes the form of an obituary as Jaroslav Weigel passed away September 5, 2019 in a Prague hospital at the age of 88. I saw Weigel act in many of the 15 plays performed at the theatre I love to frequent, The Jára Cimrman Theatre. This theatre is unique because it only showcases plays about the fictional character Jára Cimrman, who lived during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All 15 plays take place at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century. The comedies employ witty and often history-related jokes as well as language-oriented puns.

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Jaroslav Weigel from the play Africa. Photo from style.hnonline.sk

They all center on the genius Jára Cimrman, whose talent remained undiscovered until his posthumous papers were unearthed in a cottage in the Jizera Mountains of north Bohemia during 1966, according to the playwriting duo of Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak, two of the creators of the Cimrman legend. Cimrman was a man of many trades: an inventor, a playwright, a collector of fairy tales, a traveling dentist, a composer of operas, a gynecologist, a criminologist and a world traveler, to name just a few of his professions. The tales of Jára Cimrman have become national folklore that to no small extent defines the country’s culture.

Over the years, this theatre has helped me deal with stress and hardships, making me laugh when I dearly needed a reason to smile. Seeing the performances allows me to achieve a mental balance in my life, so that I can think more clearly and solve problems more easily.

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Miloň Čepelka and Jaroslav Weigel in The Act. Photo from zpravy.aktualne.cz.

Back to Jaroslav Weigel. Ever since I started attending performances some years ago, I have been fascinated by Weigel’s accomplishments, by his stellar resume of talents and achievements. While I thought of him as an actor, he also made a name for himself as a painter, graphic artist, scene designer and costume designer. He was a member of the theatre ensemble since 1970. His association with the theatre started in the 1960s, when he worked as an editor with the influential magazine Mladý Svět (Young World). There, he came across a story by a young Zdeněk Svěrák, who co-founded the theatre. That marked the beginning of cooperation that would span five decades.

Weigel studied to be an art and history teacher at Charles University, and one of his mentors was the acclaimed Cyril Bouda, a much-acclaimed illustrator and painter. The talented student sometimes visited Bouda at his unique family house in the functionalist Baba quarter, a section of Prague six through which I often take walks. I sometimes try to imagine a young Weigel walking with a determined gait through the streets of Baba on the way to see his professor.

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the Secession-like covers of the DVDs of the plays.

 

Weigel designed the theatre’s distinctive Secession style publications such as the DVD cover of České Nebe or Czech Heaven. Photo from mksvyskov.cz.

Weigel’s talent as a graphic artist has greatly influenced the theatre’s artistic image. He designed all the printed matter for the theatre, including posters and programs, which have a charming and elegant Art Nouveau quality and are artistic works themselves.

However, his contributions did not stop there. He also designed the costumes and the stage sets, which bring the stories to life, helping to shape a fictional world in which the spectators can become engrossed.

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Jaroslav Weigel and Zdeněk Svěrák in Lijavec. Photo from topky.sk.

Weigel also designed postage stamps dedicated to Jára Cimrman, one of which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the theatre that took place several years ago. It shows Cimrman’s practically featureless bust.

The artistic guru also acted on television and in films written by Zdeněk Svěrák, including Svěrák’s first screenplay, Run, Waiter, Run! He last appeared on the big screen during 2007, when he had a role in the much-acclaimed Empties, directed by Jan Svěrák and written by Zdeněk Svěrák.

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The long-time actor’s achievements do not stop there. He also designed covers for records and illustrated books and magazines as well as calendars. He even co-designed a comic strip with Kája Saudek.

What I will remember Weigel for most is his acting. Over the decades, he had performed in all 15 plays, taking on roles as the baron leading an expedition to Africa in a hot air balloon and as the 15th century religious martyr Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415. In Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played major roles in two short plays. In the Messenger of Light, he played the father of a son who decides to turn his parents’ home into a factory to make flashlights, with plans to have his parents walk 30 kilometers to a retirement home in the mountains. Weigel’s character, who often acts confused, winds up outsmarting his son, hitting him over the head with a flashlight. Then the mother and father make sure their son will not be able to ruin their lives.

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Jaroslav Weigel in Messenger from Liptákov

In the other play of Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played Hlavsa, who sees into the future by peering into his huge wood stove. A coal baron named Ptáček asks him to find out which suitor is right for his daughter, and Hlavsa tells the wealthy man that he sees the name Petr Bezruč on the gate of one of Ptáček’s mines. The baron, played by the very talented Miloň Čepelka, assumes he sells his mine to the poet Bezruč, not realizing that the mine will be taken away from him during the totalitarian era and that Bezruč’s writings will become a mouthpiece for the Communist regime.

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Jaroslav Weigel as Jan Hus and Petr Brukner as Saint Wenceslas in Czech Heaven. Photo from Třebíčský deník.

The character of Smrtka, personifying death, wears a black suit with black hat and holds a scythe. He waits for Weigel’s character to finish his prophesies in order to lead him to Heaven because it is the day that Hlavsa is scheduled to die. It turns out that Smrtka misses his chance to take Hlavsa to Heaven as the designated time passes, and he has to hurry to his next customer. Smrtka tells Weigel’s character that he has two more years before another younger Smrtka comes along to escort him to Heaven.

I guess that September 5 was the appointed time for Jaroslav Weigel to go on his last journey, ending an illustrious career that helped form the image of the Jára Cimrman Theatre and that helped the ensemble survive more than 50 years.

Tracy Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

 

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the cover of the collected plays

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A stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the theatre ensemble, designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

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The book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jára Cimrman Theatre. Cover designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

 

 

 

Teatro Olimpico Diary

 

VicenzaTeatroOint17I cannot choose one place as the highlight of my trip to the magical world of Palladian architecture in Vicenza, but certainly seeing the Teatro Olimpico ranks right up there. Recognized by UNESCO, this is one of the three Renaissance theatres in existence. The 72-year old Andrea Palladio designed what is now the oldest covered theatre in Europe, and construction began in 1580. When Palladio died in August of that year, Vicenza-born architect Vincenzo Scamozzi took over.

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Still, the theatre clearly features many Palladian characteristics. For instance, the plan for the theatre was based on classical architecture. As usual, Palladio had found inspiration in the writings of Roman architectural guru Vitruvius, who lived during 1 BC. Indeed, I felt as if I were seated in a theatre dating back to antiquity. The classical forms gave the Teatro Olimpico a very majestic quality.

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The theatre held its first performance on March 3, 1585, as actors who were at the time well-known performed Oedipus Rex, a play chosen for its classical theme. The costumes were extravagant. About 1,500 spectators watched, and the play was a huge success. However, the theatre was only used for a few performances.

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Palladio had had his work cut out for him. The theatre was built on the site of a former prison, which had a box-like shape. Palladio was able to turn the audience hall into an oval shape, and the seating was sloped steeply, as if it were a Roman amphitheatre. The amphitheatres I had visited in Taormina, Segesta and Syracuse, Sicily and in Arles, France came to mind. I also thought of the Roman amphitheatre I had seen the previous year in Lecce, Puglia.

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The classical architecture and statuary captured my immediate attention. Three orders of columns decorated the proscenium. The 41 statues that adorned the theatre on the proscenium and in the wings looked as if they were made of stone. That was just one of the many illusions in this theatre. In reality, the statues were sculpted from swamp reeds, tow, earthenware and mortar. While the statues showed off aristocrats from the 16th century, these figures were clad in classical attire, often wearing armor or long gowns. Thus, they were not portraits but likenesses set in a past time period. Because Leonardo Valmarana had been an ardent supporter of the Habsburgs, his statue has a face similar to that of Emperor Charles V.

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Notably, there were no women represented. Still, some of the men rendered had distinctive feminine features. Initially, some of the statues had been designed to show female figures, but they were changed into men. This produced some hilarious results. In the upper tier, the statue of Gerolamo Forni sports a beard but has a female body.

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Furthermore, all of the statues were not of the same quality. That’s because the quality of the statue depended on two factors – how influential the man represented was and how much the man had paid to have the statue sculpted. It would have been interesting to be able to inspect each one and learn who was most valued in Renaissance society. There were other statues, too. These included renditions of Olympic deities and one of Palladio himself, designed after the masterful architect had died.

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Hercules held a prominent position in the décor of the theatre. This legendary figure was the focus of stucco-clad bas-reliefs that told the story of his life. The artistic narration included scenes in which Hercules takes over for Atlas holding up the world, the Hercules – Antaeus encounter in which Hercules was victorious and Hercules’ successful fight against the Cretan bull. Thus, another classical theme was portrayed. The bas-reliefs by no means stagnant. There is a strong dynamic quality to the episodes that are brought to life in a vivacious way. So, while the theme stems from the classical world, the bas-reliefs provide a much livelier look than that expressed in the classical world. The figures even have a Baroqueness about them.

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One feature that enamored me was the illusive architecture, the false perspectives utilized in the design. The set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage far into the horizon, but it was really painted so that it created a fake perspective. I couldn’t believe that it was all an illusion. I could see myself meandering down the streets. It was architecturally amazing. I thought of the basilica at Hejnice and how the main altar was really painted on the wall, while it appeared three-dimensional. This feature of the theatre was designed by Scamozzi, who was known for his talent using false perspective. Via Theatres showed spectators a world of illusion. The world of the play was not the real world. This theatre also was a place of illusion itself.

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Another illusionary feature was the false sky above. It looked like the theatre was not covered at all, as if it were open and light under a clear sky. The likeness to a real sky was incredible. I did not sense I was in a closed space. This feature was designed at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The lighting played a major role in producing the illusive perspectives due to their location. Originally, the lights consisted of colored oils inside glass bulbs or wicks in metal boxes. They were hidden within the architecture featuring false perspective, so no one could tell where the source of the lighting was. It was a masterful idea, I thought. Scamozzi was responsible for the lighting. I wondered if my friend and former college lighting professor had ever been here. She would have a field day studying the lighting features.

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The theatre soon became an entertainment venue. During the 17th century, the theatre was used for receptions of VIPs the town was hosting. Fencing tournaments also took place there. Until recently, graduation ceremonies were held there. It is still used as a theatre on occasion, but only 400 spectators are allowed to watch performances for safety reasons.

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I appreciated the classical features of the theatre that had a distinguished feel. The statues added a classical elegance, and the bas-reliefs gave the theatre’s décor a vivacious character. I also was enthralled by the false perspective. Both the scenery and the fake sky were unbelievable.

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When it was time to leave, I did not want to go. I could have stared at the proscenium, wings and false sky for hours. It certainly was a unique structure. It would prove to be one of most bewitching sights I visited in Vicenza.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.