Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre returns to the Jan Hus Playhouse, 351 East 74th Street, April 10 to May 4, 2014 with “Don Juan, or Wages of Debauchery,” conceived and directed by Vit Horejs, adapted and directed from an anonymous play of itinerant puppeteers.
In 18th century Europe, Don Juan (“Don Shayn”) was among the top “hits” of the Czech marionette repertoire. The only theatre truly available in small towns and villages were shows by itinerant puppeteers. Their plays were a whimsical mixture of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” heroic legends, and rudimentary pre-Shakespearean tragedies. There is nothing very glamorous about the character of Don Juan in the Czech puppet play-he ends up as a common robber, hungry, rejected by all his former conquests and riled constantly by his inept servant Kasparek, the earthy Bohemian cousin of Mr. Punch and Leporello.
The production is perfectly OK for the kiddies. There is no profanity and Don Juan’s womanizing is done at the Warner Brothers cartoon level. The play is recommended for children from six to 106.
The play takes the basic plot of the Opera “Don Giovanni,” even with a little singing from it, and turns it into a platform for a burlesque between Don Juan and his servant, the impish Kasparek. Kasparek, a stock character in the Czech puppet repertoire, is played by Theresa Linnihan in a comic tour-de-force. He has the mentality of Curly Joe and a similar squeaky voice. The bickering between master and servant is most of the play. Don Juan is wonderfully underplayed by the deep-voiced Vit Horejs.
As an historical character, Don Juan is mostly remembered for his womanizing, but in this play it’s really incidental: just a single chase scene for a beautiful girl puppet between Don Juan and a rival, his brother. This is just enough to introduce Don Juan’s fiancee’s father, whom he kills (oops!). This sets up Kasparek’s first really hilarious scene, when he discovers the corpse. From there, Don Juan goes on a comic killing spree and Kasparek is in stellar form, particularly when he is charged with standing guard while Don Juan is dealing with the old Hermit. Kasparek is supposed to whistle if there’s trouble and the scene climaxes as the little imp meets the devil, who is coming to take Don Juan to perdition.
Under Austro-Hungarian, Nazi and Communist domination, Czech puppetry contained pointed political satire by concealing sharp criticism in familiar tales. For over 30 years, Czech puppet impresarios have experimented with shattering illusion of the hidden puppeteer by having human actors perform opposite their wooden counterparts. Stylistically, Vit Horejs falls in with the prominent modernists of this form. Citing the 1997 production of “Hamlet,” Time Magazine (Emily Mitchell) credited Horejs with “uniting the honored tradition with post-modern sensibilities, giving his mute figures from a bygone era a startling new place in the theater.” UPI (Fred Winship), reviewing “Hamlet” at the Jan Hus Playhouse, described how CAMT’s aproach “reflects a new trend in Czech puppetry. It shatters the illusion of traditional marionette theater, with invisible puppeteers pulling the strings, by having the puppeteers on stage as human actors performing opposite their wooden counterparts.”
In this production, Downtown meets the Folk Tradition. High and low, live performers and puppets of disparate sizes are blended to a startling comical and sometime touching effect. The puppets include antiques, puppets designed and constructed by master carver Jakub Krejci, toy puppets by Prague-based Milos Kasal, and a giant surprise by CAMT’s Theresa Linnihan. The actor/puppeteers are Deborah Beshaw, Michelle Beshaw, Vit Horejs, Theresa Linnihan and one part yet to be cast as of this writing. Costumes are by Theresa Linnihan and Egypt Dixon. Set design is by Theresa Linnihan and Alan Barnes Netherton. Music is composed expressly by Court Kappelmeister Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The play’s alternate title is an apt and humorous synopsis. It is also known as “Don Giovanni, Don Sajn, Don Shayn & Don J Or Two Grooms for one Bride Or Killing Two Fathers with One Sword Or Else the Unabreviated True Tragycal Scandalous Story of hys Innumerable Crimes and Gallant Exployts and How That Most Notoryous and Dissolute Libertine and Patricide Came to His Untymelye End In the Eternal Fyre of the Unfathomable Flamyng Pytt of Perdytion after He had Wooed His Promised Spouse for the Second Tyme in The Grave Yard on The Tombstone of her Unjustlie Murdered Father Whom He Invyted to a Twelve-Course Dinner And How he Came to Bytterlie Regret This Caper.”
ABOUT CZECHOSLOVAK-AMERICAN MARIONETTE THEATER
Vit Horejs, an emigre from Prague, founded Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) in 1990, utilizing century-old Czech puppets which he found at Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. His trademark is using puppets of many sizes, from six-inch toy marionettes to twelve-foot rod puppets which double as scenery. CAMT is dedicated to preserving and presenting traditional and not-so-traditional puppetry.
At La MaMa E.T.C., the company has performed “The Little Rivermaid Rusalka” (1999), “Johannes Dokchtor Faust” (2000), “The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Joan of France” (2001), “Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery” (2003), “The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald” (2004), “Once There Was a Village” (2007), an ethno-opera with puppets, found objects and music by Frank London of the Klezmatics; “Twelfth Night (or What You Will)” (2009) and the troupe’s most successful work, “Golem“ (1997, 1998 Henson International Puppetry Festival, and 2011), which also had a score by Frank London. Its last production there was “The Republic, or My Dinner with Socrates” (2013).
Theater for the New City has presented the company in four productions. “Mr. M” (2011) was the first American stage adaptation of “Mr. Theodore Mundstock” by Ladislav Fuks, a postwar Czech writer of psychological fiction. “Revolution!?“ (2010) was performed with AGENTURA DELL’ARTE (from Prague); it was a theater spectacle that examined revolutions throughout the history of mankind as a backdrop for the extraordinary peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia. “The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes…” (2008) explored the Rosenberg trial with a manipulated set but few puppets. Anita Gates wrote in the New York Times, “Vit Horejs has written and directed a first-rate, thoroughly original production and made it look effortless. The cast gives charged, cohesive performances, and the staging is expert.” Last season, puppets and live performers enacted an enigmatic tale of early World War II in “King Executioner,” written and directed by Vit Horejs, loosely based on “When you are a King, You will be an Executioner” (1968) by the Polish magical realist novelist Tadeusz Nowak (1930-1991).
Productions in other venues have ranged from Czech classics to Shakespeare to fairy tales. “Johannes Dokchtor Faust” premiered in its first season (1990) and was re-staged in 1994 as part of NADA’s Obie Award-winning “Faust Festival” in Soho. It was revived at La MaMa in 2000 and at Manhattan’s Bohemian Hall in 2007. “Hamlet” debuted at the Vineyard Theater in 1995, was performed at outdoor venues in NY, and toured to the 2004 Prague Summer Shakespeare Festival at Prague Castle. It was revived on Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO, Brooklyn in 2007. “The Bass Saxophone,” a WWII fantasy with music based on a story by Czech-Canadian writer Josef Skvorecky, played 11 weeks at the Grand Army Plaza Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn during the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2006. CAMT’s productions for young audiences include “A Christmas Carol-OY! Hanukkah-Merry Kwanzaa,” “The Historye of Queen Esther, of King Ahasverus & of the Haughty Haman,” “Kacha and the Devil,” “The White Doe – Or The Piteous Trybulations of the Sufferyng Countess Jenovefa,” “Snehurka, The Snow Maiden” and “Twelve Iron Sandals.”
CAMT has also appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, the Smithsonian Institution, The World Trade Center, the Antonin Dvorak Festival in Spillville, Iowa, the 2012 inauguration of The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis, the Lowell Folk Arts Festival in Massachusetts and in international festivals in Poland, Turkey, Pakistan, and the Czech Republic.
This production is supported by The New York State Council on the Arts; The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in Partnership with the City Council; The Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association; Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic; Materials for the Arts (a program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York City Department of Sanitation); Czechoslovak Society for Arts and Sciences.
GOH Productions will present “Don Juan, or Wages of Debauchery” at the Jan Hus Playhouse, 351 East 74th Street (Bet 1st & 2nd Ave.) April 10 to May 4, 2014. Tickets are $18 gen. Adm., $13 seniors and students and can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/577337 or 800-838-3006.