Prague, 1912

“Prague, 1912” by Lu Hauser, directed by George Ferencz, presented by Theater for the New City November 9 to 26, 2017. Jenne Vath as Mme. Trassek, John Barilla as Jak Lowy. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Theatre isn’t just art; it’s also culture. My wife loves restaurants and food shows. Spending some time in that head space, as well as my years of reviewing, and working in places like museums, has helped me develop an appreciation for that broader human category. Things like history, ethnicity, and language are part of the theatre experience. Other arts, like architecture, and interior design inform it. There are ways that the apparatus of the “house” mimic the hospitality industry. One doesn’t automatically appreciate these things. Most often they are invisible, part of the background. But they are vital elements, as important as any other. When they get it wrong, that’s when you usually take notice.

The other night at Theater for the New City, while waiting for Prague 1912 (the Savoy Cafe Yiddish Theatre) to begin, I was truly appreciating the culture of that particular theatre. I have a past with the place, yes, but so does most of its audience. It feels like home. It is a positive, welcoming place. It accomplishes much good in the world. And after spending days, weeks, months in a highly charged negative political reality, nothing can do you more good than to immerse yourself in such an environment. It is sanctuary. I’m not saying no harm can ever reach you there. But in the event, it’s a pleasant place to be in the meantime!

None of which is to say I enjoyed Prague 1912 so much because of the setting, but that the show and venue were very much in tune with each other and that deserves a shout-out from time to time. And Prague 1912 is about the theatre itself, not this theatre per se, but the heroic strivings of theatre artists against the odds and the fates and the elements, and the the very will of humans to survive. It was inevitable for me to contemplate where I was.

Prague 1912 is an absurdist telling about a performing couple (John Barilla and Jenne Vath) who come to Prague, rent a theatre, struggle, and — to make ends meet — hawk sweet potatoes in the street. Their relationship is contentious, affectionate, hilarious and heartbreaking. We mostly see them through the eyes of a young writer with the loaded name of Gregor Samsa (Jason Howard) who gets drawn into their drama, and then trapped for a time in their tar pit. The characters are archetypal, at times reminiscent of Didi and Gogo, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Bialystok and Bloom. While its title couldn’t be more specific as to time and place, the play itself feels much more universal and fairy tale like. Initially I assumed it was an obscure century-old relic. Only later did I learn from reading the program notes, that it was a clever and knowing homage, penned by the late Lu Hauser as her last play, in collaboration with director George Ferencz. It is based on the real life exploits of Yiddish theatre actors Itzhak Lowy and Mania Tshissik. Vathe and Barilla are moving and engaging in these highly theatrical roles, full of bombast, angst, pretense, and pain. Interwoven throughout is a Klezmer inflected cornet score played by Alex Wilborn. The production zips along at a brisk under-80, with no intermission. All in all, a warm intoxicating evening of theatre-lovers’ theatre. For tickets and info go to theaterforthenewcity.net.

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