Wenceslas Square, a Cesear's Forum production.
If you ask most younger people about their opinion of Prague Spring, they'd likely think you were talking about a new artisanal water from the misty slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. But back in 1968, Prague Spring was another name for freedom: The leader of the Communist party of Czechoslovakia had instituted reforms that brought a wave of democratic changes to that country. Arts blossomed in this suddenly more liberal setting, and it was hailed globally by that cheerful moniker.
But only eight months later Russia shut it all down by invading, and that began the much longer period of "Prague Winter." Protests abounded, including a young college student, Jan Palach, who immolated himself in protest in Wenceslas Square, one of the main gathering places in the center of Prague.
That is the background of the play "Wenceslas Square" by Larry Shue, now being produced by Cesear's Forum. It centers on an American professor named Vince Corey who has written a book about his time visiting that country during Prague Spring, a time of great artistic freedom and self-expression. But when he arrives five years later to conduct some final pre-publication interviews with the artists he met, he discovers most of them are gone or severely compromised by the regimented government policies instituted since he left.
The story rolls out as a remembrance by Bob Dooley, now decades older, who accompanied Vince as a photographer when he was Vince's student. Once they arrive in Prague, Vince connects with a couple Czech women, Katya and Smocekova, so they can help him find his old pals. But he soon discovers that his friends have mostly scattered from that now joyless city.
In this quiet and somewhat meandering 2 1/2-hour piece, playwright Shue uses his trademark sense of humor to bring some lightness to this essentially dark story of a city gone dead. But a lot of that humor is of the bland sitcom variety, such as japes about the difficulty of translating colloquial English into a foreign language. That all seems monumentally off-point in a play that is meant to explore the serious topic of a fragile democracy being forcibly shut down.
As Vince, Danny Simpson conveys bone-deep disappointment as he gradually learns of the fate of his former Czech friends, along with the questionable future for his book. It seems that the residents of Prague in 1973 aren't so jazzed about a book that might endanger them, since the state police seem to be everywhere. Indeed, they tremble whenever they hear a cop car's siren or a scuffle of a street arrest.
The strongest performances are contributed by the actors playing the residents of Prague. This includes excellent Tricia Bestic who is double-cast as Katya and an older woman, Illinova. Mary Alice Beck adds a rough and randy portrayal of Smocekova, a woman who never minces words. Stuart Hoffman contributes two sharp characterizations as Katya's fearful and angry husband Ladislav, and the matinee idol turned propaganda film flunky Langer—a man who's beaten and knows it.
Director Greg Cesear uses double casting a lot but then assigns the role of Dooley to two actors. Joe Milan, (who doubles as the driven-batty former actor Pavlicek), is the older Dooley who narrates the story, while Max Elinsky, with long hair and headband, plays his younger self in the flashback scenes. Elinsky plays Dooley as an affable fellow who never fully connects with the events going on around him.
Over the years Cesear has created some inspired staging of little-known plays, but is hard-pressed here to make much out of Shue's semi-pseudo-quasi-comedy. He tries to add jocularity through the omnipresence of Trey Gilpin, a talented actor who provides props to the other players along with a constant flow of schtick. With all due respect to GilpinSchtick™, which can be most amusing, it feels out of place here.
Of course, there is a temptation to see this play and that long-ago Russian invasion of Prague through the lens of Russia's invasion of the Ukraine right now, but that analog dissolves quickly. As is true with so much of politics these days, things have escalated to such a drastic degree, we are actually wondering if American citizens will rise up to save our democracy this November and in two years—while musing over the threats that Putin start a nuclear war. In that context, an easy-going play like this feels like bringing a foam fist to a knife fight.
The Cesear's Forum production of "Wenceslas Square" is certainly worth a look for the fine acting on display. But the play itself is neither funny nor scary enough to move the needle.
"Wenceslas Square," through Oct. 29, produced by Cesear's Forum, Kennedy's Down Under, Playhouse Square, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org.
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