Theater review: The Act

The first of the famous Cimrman plays is now performed in English-language

The Act (Akt)
Directed by Michael Pitthan
With Ben Bradshaw, Peter Hosking, Curt Matthew, Adam Stewart, Brian Caspe

A fourth play allegedly written by Czech genius Jára Cimrman now is in English. The Act (Akt) chronologically was the first play, performed in 1967. It is a bit rougher and slightly more vulgar than the other three already translated.

The English versions are performed at Žižkovské divadlo Járy Cimrmana, the same theater in Prague’s Žižkov district where the original Czech plays are performed, and use the same props and sets.

For those who don’t know, Jára Cimrman is the brainchild of real-life Czech media personalities Ladislav Smoljak, Jiří Šebánek and Zdeněk Svěrák. The character began on radio and is depicted an inventor, playwright, teacher, traveler, composer, scientist, detective and sportsman. Skeptics (meaning any rational people) claim he didn’t really exist, and instead that Zdeněk Svěrák and company wrote the plays.

According to a fictitious background story, the plays were long considered lost, but were rediscovered and studied by scholars known as Cimrmanologists. The Act, like the other plays, begins with a disastrous lecture about Cimrman and after an intermission, the reconstructed play is performed by the same scholars.

This is the first of the English-language adaptations to be translated by ensemble member Brian Caspe, along with his wife, Dagmar. Zdeněk Svěrák’s daughter, Hanka Jelínková–Svěráková, oversaw the authenticity to make sure the Cimrman legacy, which is truly a national treasure, is properly preserved.

Some of the original jokes didn’t work in English, but others in the same style were added when possible.

The lecture this time is a good starting point for newcomers, as it explains how the plays were found, following an explosion. The lecture includes photos of people, but not the people actually involved in the story, and similar incongruities. The scholars disagree on minor points and increasingly argue as the lecture proceeds. It is just slightly exaggerated from the real rivalries in academia.

The play itself features an older couple (Peter Hosking as the husband, Žíla, and Ben Bradshaw as the wife, Žílová), who invite some seemingly random people — a teacher (Curt Matthew), a fraudster (Adam Stewart) and a sexologist (Brian Caspe) — from far way to come and visit. They each think they have been called to do business. The Cimrman ensemble has always been all male, so the female roles are played in drag.

Bradshaw cuts an odd figure in a print dress and necklace, but no wig or other feminine attributes.

There is a very intentional awkwardness to the play. Some song and dance numbers pop up in unlikely locations. A few sections are in verse, for reasons explained in the lecture.

The staging, which follows the Czech original, is a bit static, which is meant to support the rather dry and deadpan humor, as well as the idea that the actors are not professional actors but scholars presenting the fruits of their research.

The best bits go to Brian Caspe as the sexologist, who keeps offering unsolicited advice and theories throughout the play. Caspe in this and the other productions have been the hammiest character, broadly overacting. This fits in with his depiction as the most conceited of the Cimrman scholars. Caspe is one of the locally based actors who make appearances in supporting roles in films shot here in Prague. For example, he was seen in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Underworld: Blood Wars, as well as the series Whiskey Cavalier and Knightfall.

The other guests are a bit less developed and compete a bit for audience attention.

Aside from the sexology jokes, there is a vein of scatological humor that seems out of place compared to the later plays, which were a bit more polished in terms of plot and humor.

The direction seems simple, but actually, there is a lot more going on than can be caught at first glance. Michael Pitthan had to respect the overall intention of the original Czech production while making it lively enough for an international audience unfamiliar with the Cimrman concept.

The first play performed in English, The Stand-In (Záskok), is arguably still the best of the bunch and the best entry point for the series. The others, aside from The Act, are Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního pólu) and Pub in the Glade (Hospoda Na mýtince), each of which has their deadpan charms. They are all performed on a rotating basis, and almost always sell out.

The series offers a good way to get acquainted with Czech humor, and the idea that the Czech nation was almost great, but somehow managed to let that slip away, just like Cimrman almost achieved fame as an inventor but was always second in line at the patent office.

The plays are now shown with English surtitles to help audience members who are not native speakers.

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