Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Anna Gelman.
Organic Theater Company director Brian Wakefield and his talented team of actors must have had a wonderful time working with Czech playwright Vaclav Havel’s The Memo. Wakefield has created a production of so much visual absurdity that it almost dwarfs the absurdity of the play itself, which Havel wrote as a commentary on Communism but which feels far more universal than that. From the opening of the first act, a dumb show in which the ensemble runs through the motions of office tedium in an increasingly frenetic pace until interrupted by an action that actually starts the play, Wakefield shows us the mind-numbing insanity of daily office drudgery. Actors move in stylized, synchronized ways, and the lack of humanity in the vision before us speaks volumes: it is as if they are all cogs in a great machine.
Once the dialogue begins, Havel takes us into a very specific, though unnamed, company run by ineffectual director Gross (Tricia Rogers in one of several roles tweaked for modern audiences’ gender-blind expectations) who finds herself unable to fathom why her company has suddenly taken on the task of changing over to an entirely new language, a change she only discovers when a memo surfaces written in it and she cannot read it. The language, Ptydepe, purports to be scientifically designed to increase efficiency in communication, though Gross is immediately (and reasonably) suspicious about how a language no one understands can accomplish that. (Efficiency may well be a concept that needs addressing, though, in a company in which every employee is much more interested in going to lunch or partying than in working.) It becomes clear that her scheming, smooth-talking second-in-command, Balas (Joel Moses) has implemented this change in an effort to somehow usurp her position and authority. And he has not merely brought in a new language; he has reorganized the entire company around it, banishing Accounting to the dark, candle-lit basement and creating a Department of Translation that includes mandatory lessons in Ptydepe.
As Gross learns more about the change, she discovers that Balas’s usurpation has come with a ridiculously circular set of rules. For instance, she cannot get the memo translated except by an official translator, who cannot do so unless an order is filed, which order can only be filed with a certain set of documentation, which can only be given when it does not conflict with the memo…which would need to be translated in order to know that. (The employees of the Translation Department are played hilariously by Kate Black-Spence, Laura Sturm, and Schanora Wimpie. The Ptydepe instructor, outrageously portrayed by Nick Bryant, is also so over-the-top that he is wonderfully funny.) Thwarted by this excessively bureaucratic series of Catch-22s, Gross attempts to shut the whole thing down but is tricked by Balas into supporting it instead.
And that’s just the start of things.
Throughout, Wakefield employs intentionally repetitive and silly action involving hats, lemons, milk, cigars, file folders and other props to call attention to the absurdity of the whole situation. He also calls back to the opening sequence with every scene change, as actors walk onstage looking like Monty Python characters trying out Silly Walks in order to set or remove items. All of this repetition is also mirrored in the text of the play, which is comprised of, basically, three scenes done again and again with variations. Further, Havel actually repeats entire sections of dialogue to prove that, no matter what happens, things don’t really change. The kind of out of control bureaucracy that we see here is not designed to make new things happen but to give people something to do that sort of looks like change. Wakefield clearly understands that and has done a fine job of communicating it to his cast (probably not in Ptydepe).
The Memo is not for everyone. It is absurdist through and through, and I’ll admit that I was not sure what I felt about it until reflecting on it later. It’s also about twenty minutes too long. But the (unfortunately sparse) audience at the Greenhouse on Thursday night responded to what they were seeing with much laughter, and the actors appeared to be having a great time. If you are a fan of Havel (or Ionesco or any other the other absurdists), you’ll probably enjoy this one. And the conversation in the car going home, as you unravel it, will probably be half the fun.
The Memo is an Organic Theater Company production now playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago through June 16. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.