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Cloudy forecast for new Prague spring.

Ironically, five years after the Velvet Revolution ushered a playwright to the presidency and introduced a bustling capitalist democracy to this former Eastern bloc country, many Czech theatres face the prospect of substantial down-scaling, restructuring and even liquidation. Although state censorship may not exist any longer, neither do the funds necessary to support the former state-subsidized theatres with their large permanent ensembles of actors and designers.

The elimination of state support has been threatened for at least four years, but as the 1993-94 season drew to a close, the Darwinian economic policies of the government finally pulled the first plug. The national Ministry of Culture declared that its customary funding of a variety of theatres would end by 1995, if not by this fall. Only the National Theatre would continue to receive its subsidies; funding would end for the State Opera, Josef Svoboda's Laterna Magica Theatre and Otomar Krejca's Theatre Beyond the Gate II. Each now must find alternate funding, perhaps from municipal or regional governments or from corporate sponsors. The Ministry maintained it would still award grants for specific projects, but no support would be offered for any ongoing ensemble repertory company (virtually the only kind of professional theatre in the country).

Nevertheless, in an economic, social and philosophical context that is more threatening than hopeful, some significant new talents have signaled that Czech theatre is not simply on automatic pilot. To speak of a new wave in Czech theatre is probably premature, but at least four theatres have young directors or artistic heads whose work has revivified their institutions. (Perhaps surprisingly, no new significant Czech playwrights have emerged in this de-censored environment.)

At the Theatre on the Balustrades (the artistic home through most of the 1960s to playwright and future president Vaclav Havel and director Jan Grossman), Prague's enfant terrible Petr Lebl reigns as the new artistic head and chief director. Grossman himself invited Lebl to guest direct at the theatre in 1992, and after Grossman's death in early 1993, Lebl was chosen as his successor. Still under 30, Lebl trained as a graphic artist and scenographer, as well as a director, but dropped out of the Czech state-run theatre conservatory after less than two years. In an interview, Lebl frankly stated he does theatre to please himself. His highest priority? "Avoiding boredom."

Consciously or not, Lebl's work epitomizes a postmodern approach, melding a variety of traditions--dada, surrealism; high camp and turn-of-the-century pop art--in productions at once outrageous, witty and, since he designs his own sets, visually striking. Lebl's shows, full of in-jokes and bizarre characterization, are both self-consciously theatrical and painstakingly detailed, obviously based on considerable thought and disciplined rehearsal.

Lebl's strength--the abundance of theatrical and visual conceits--has a tendency to become his weakness. This was particularly evident in his April 1994 production of Chekhov's The Seagull. Lebl crams almost every scene with highly stylized, often grotesque interpretations. Masha becomes a clownish, hysterical alcoholic who drinks cognac from a samovar. Treplev stalks Nina in the second act stripped to the waist and wearing a feather in his headband. In one scene several characters take turns puffing on a joint, while in another servants hold electric fans to create a wind effect.

LEBL'S SCENERY CONSISTS mostly of deliberately artificial, two-dimensional canvas pieces of trees, columns or clouds engraved in black and white. Lebl even throws in a constructivist conceit--characters in stylized poses are brought on and off stage on a treadmill. Although Lebl enjoys a devoted coterie of young fans, it remains to be seen whether his obvious talents will mature and be brought under steadier control.

The Labyrint Theatre (formerly the Realistic Theatre) became a home to politically pungent experiments shortly before the revolution, and subsequently has provided promising young artists (like Lebl) their first opportunity to direct in an established Prague theatre. Currently headed by Karel Kriz, the Labyrint has recently been revitalized by the work of Marie Buresova, an exciting young director only in her thirties. Less eccentric and satiric than Lebl, Buresova's specialty seems to be mining the inherent humor and charm of period pieces, amplifying their theatricality while successfully flushing out stage action with musical additions. She has a special fondness for Baroque folk plays, but perhaps her most successful achievement has been her version of the opera The Barber of Seville, in which the music and singing--live and recorded--become subordinated to the commedia action of the plot.

Petr Kracik, also in his thirties, has successfully transformed the former S.K. Neumann Theatre into the Theatre Under the Palm. Over the last several years his strategy has been to tightly organize all economic operations in support of a repertoire calculated to assure audience support. Most enterprising, Kracik managed to create an anomaly in Czech theatre--an ensemble of relatively young actors (most acting ensembles are dominated by performers aged 40 and over). Devoted to well-known classics--the recent repertoire included Hamlet, Peer Gynt, Of Mice and Men, and one or two Czech works--the theatre's traditional programming is invigorated by the youthful, enthusiastic company committed to Kracik's emphasis on text and actor rather than elaborate staging. In the spring of 1994, feeling more secure with his audiences, Kracik began to phase somewhat more adventurous texts into the repertory: Buchner's Woyzek, Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Pinter's The Homecoming and Janusz Glowacki's Antigone in New York.

The most radical harbinger of the new order of Prague theatre operations occurred recently at the site of the E.F. Burian Theatre, named after one of the most famous 20th-century avant-garde Czech directors, Ondrej Hrab, whose background is in economics and sociology was chosen in 1991 to be the new theatre head by municipal authorities on the basis of his simple, yet revolutionary (for the Czech Republic) plan: Hrab renamed the venture Archa (Ark) Theatre and oversaw the construction of a brand new facility which would serve as a "production house," with minimal administrative, technical and dramaturgical staff--but no full-time actors or designers. Instead, either already-finished productions would be imported or artists would be invited to workshop new projects. Hrab stresses that he is not interested in commercial entertainment but rather in innovative work in dance, music, mime and multi-media, as well as more experimental traditional theatre. Hrab was fortunate in obtaining the cooperation of the Commercial Bank, which owns the property and was willing to underwrite many of the theatre's expenses.

LAST JUNE, AFTER A VARIETY of avant-garde music and mime workshops and recitals, Archa Theatre presented Robert Wilson's first production in Prague, his touring Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. Subsequent performances and workshops have involved Meredith Monk, Peter Schumann, kabuki and bunraku artists, and selected Czech artists.

The new facility itself is revolutionary for Prague. The old Burian Theatre building was gutted completely, and two high-tech, ultra-flexible black box production spaces were constructed, the larger featuring 4-by-4-meter lifts, something that Burian himself would probably have admired. On the other hand, the bittersweet irony of Hrab's venture is that it is a product of free enterprise heavily subsidized by a bank, replacing Burian's theatre founded in the 1930s and dedicated to the Communist cause.

Such ventures may symbolize the future of Czech theatre productions. Municipal and regional governments are likely to follow the lead of the Ministry of Culture and reduce or eliminate their subsidies to local arts institutions. Corporate sponsorship remains almost non-existent due to the Parliament's unwillingness to establish a law that would allow tax write-offs to arts supporters.

Virtually no Czech theatre artist wants to dissolve the country's rotating repertory tradition and switch to an American style of production featuring long runs or play-by-play season slates. Czech theatre artists remain totally committed to the concept and practice of ensemble repertory. Only in repertory, they believe, can theatre exert its full cultural potential as a beneficial force for social, educational and spiritual enrichment. Unfortunately, the maddening reality remains that virtually no repertory theatre has ever been self-supporting. Confronted by one of the unforeseen offshoots of their Velvet Revolution, Czech theatres must now revitalize their improvisational skills.

Jarka M. Burian, professor emeritus of theatre, State University of New York at Albany, has written extensively on Czech theatre and on international scenography.
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Title Annotation:Czech theaters
Author:Burian, Jarka M.
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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