Saw Constellation Theatre Company's production of Václav Havel's Temptation in Washington, D.C. last night. It's a wonderful production, but since a number of the local reviews have taken aim less at the staging than Havel's play itself, I thought it might be useful to talk about the play as well as what I liked about this production.
I really like what Allison Arkell Stockman, the director of the play and the founding artistic director of Constellation, did with Temptation. A.J. Guban's set design was wonderfully inventive, and the use of choreography to link scenes and set changes really propelled the play forward.
The production boasts a number of strong performances. Frank Britton's Fistula is every bit as fussy and compelling as Havel wrote him. (And his bony Nosferatu fingers are a wonderful touch.) Heather Haney's Vilma has just the right dose of surface insouciance and interior pathos. And Jesse Terrill's Director was pitch perfect -- and got the loudest laughs of the night.
As a play, Temptation presents a couple hurdles for a production. The first is the sheer range of styles that it presents. In a way, Temptation weaves multiple themes favored by Havel -- the office politics of The Memorandum, the quest to "live in truth" in a state of totalitarianism and paranoia that he made stageworthy in his trio of Vaněk plays, and the satiric possibilities in a fusion of philosophy and seduction in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.
Temptation distills and concentrates all of those modes -- and blends in Havel's own reworking of the Faust legend rigged up to advance his own views that humanity is brutalized not only by its own innate foibles and moral failings but also by its worship of science and technocracy. (In a neat twist, Havel has Fistula -- the tempter -- reduce the conscience of the play's Faust figure -- Dr. Foustka -- to a neat psychological category: the "Smichovsky Compensation Syndrome.")
Constellation navigated this trickiness with great skill -- and its choices of emphasis in the production have helped translate this knotty play quite successfully. As an example, let me point to the end of the play, which -- as written by Havel -- is a bit of a mess that ends with the audience being driven from the theatre by smoke and a fireman with an extinguisher. But Stockman skillfully uses the ring dance and smoke that Havel calls for to relink the play back to the Ur-Faust of Marlowe and (sort of) Goethe. It's a wonderful stroke that is emblematic of the overall quality of this production.
In sum, if you're interested in Havel as playwright but have never seen his work performed, Constellation's Temptation is a great place to start. And for those who do know the work, you'll be delighted by the company's grappling with this very difficult play.