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Stephen Spinella in Svejk
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Svejk is an idiot, but you can learn a lot from him. Theatre for a New Audience is presenting the American premiere of Svejk, adapted by playwright Colin Teevan from Czech humorist Jaroslav Hasek's unfinished but highly influential anti-war epic The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk During the World War. The action of the play begins in 1914 with news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and continues through the end of World War I. It follows Svejk (Stephen Spinella), a dim-witted fool, and the comic misadventures that lead him from imprisonment to an insane asylum to the frontlines of the war. Hasek's Svejk has become an archetypal character, the bumbling idiot who manages to undermine the army through a combination of incompetence, bad luck, and willful ignorance. Teevan's script crackles with intelligence and humor, bringing this unlikely hero to vibrant theatrical life.

Spinella is marvelous, bursting with a goofy energy and radiating a good-natured idiocy, complete with a stupid grin. Yet when Svejk occasionally stops to rest for a moment by himself, there's a sad, haunted look in his eyes. His words, spoken plainly and seemingly without irony, nevertheless contain a satiric bite. He tells rambling stories that often seem to have no point but may contain pearls of wisdom. It's never entirely clear if Svejk is as imbecilic as he appears or if he's extremely crafty. He enthusiastically admits to anyone who asks that he is a complete idiot and refuses to wipe that peculiar smile off of his face; his idiocy is his refuge, and it keeps him alive amidst all of the chaos surrounding him.

As Lieutenant Lukas, the officer who wins Svejk in a game of cards, Ryan Shively is also quite good. Lukas makes Svejk his batman -- meaning that Svejk attends to the officer, runs errands for him, and looks after his needs. Of course, Svejk's attempts to be helpful prove anything but; you can practically see bits and pieces of Lukas's soul fall away as his life begins to unravel due to the seemingly good intentions of Svejk.

Scenic designer Gideon Davey has constructed a striking set, painted yellow with seemingly haphazard streaks of black. Scrawled onto the back wall as if by a child is the image of a clock in the process of breaking down, the numbers falling away from the clock face; the minute and hour hands are two huge metal rods that jut out. Other sections of the set seem to have been riddled by bullets, while random objects such as a chair and a typewriter are embedded in the walls.

Although Svejk is not a musical, it contains a number of songs with music by Lenny Pickett and lyrics by Teevan. These songs comment on the action or propel the narrative forward in a rather Brechtian manner -- which is fitting, as Brecht was among those influenced by Hasek's work. (He even adapted it in order to chronicle Svejk's adventures in World War II.) Ken Jennings serves as a one-man band, beating out rhythms on a variety of instruments, although some of the music is pre-recorded.

Director Dalia Ibelhauptaite has a firm handle on the play's stylistic quirks. A scene told from the point of view of a dog named Empress (Juliana Francis) is absolutely hilarious yet entirely clear. An interlude involving a dead lieutenant (Mark Mineart) encountering St. Peter (Richard Poe) at the Gates of Heaven is oddly disturbing, and its languorous pace suggests the out-of-body experience quite effectively. There's even a "meeting" between an Angora cat (Chip Persons) and a Harz canary (David Deblinger), staged in a cute farcical manner that has the audience groaning with laughter.

Svejk, while clearly set during World War I, has a lot to say about our contemporary society. It's a powerful play about the absurdities of war and the idiot who may be the only one to survive.

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