The MemoWritten by Vaclav Havel, Directed by Stephen Nunns
Through April 27 at Single Carrot Theatre
The first thing we notice when Sarah Gretchen walks on the stage as Sarah Balas, deputy director of the unnamed "agency" in a preview performance of Single Carrot Theatre's absorbing production of Vaclav Havel's The Memo, is her clothes. She's wearing a business suit, but the blazer is missing the back, with black straps holding it in place over her otherwise bare shoulders. One by one, we are introduced to other characters, and they too are missing parts of the their clothing: secretary Kristina (Kristina Szilagyi) is missing a sleeve, Dr. Nathan Kunc (Nathan Fulton) is missing a pants leg, and chairperson Sophie (Sophie Hinderberger) has holes cut out of her blazer over her chest. After a while, as an audience, we stop noticing this bizarre style of dress, and that drives home one of this dark comedy's themes: conformity. No matter how strange things are, they can start to seem normal if everyone else is doing them.
The only one whose clothes do not seem to conform to this style is agency director Rich Gross (Rich Espey). The play opens with Mr. Gross walking into his office and finding a memo on his desk, written in some form of gibberish that we soon learn is called "Ptydepe" (pronounced P.T. Deppy-perhaps an allusion to P.T. Barnum's maxim about a sucker being born every minute). Gross' standard office attire and his confusion underline his role as stand-in for the audience. It quickly becomes apparent that everyone at the agency besides Gross is already familiar with Ptydepe, and that there are already training and translation centers in the building. The director's attempt to get to the bottom of what's going on at the organization he ostensibly runs plays like that universal dream where we find ourselves lost in a world where everybody else seems to know what's going on but us.
It seems that Balas and her silent shadow (and possible sex slave) Jack Kubs (Jack Sossman) are behind the shift to Ptydepe, an absurdist language supposedly scientifically designed to avoid the messiness and nuance of "natural languages." Much of the humor of The Memo comes in interludes from a Ptydepe training class, taught by J.V. Diem (played energetically and brilliantly by Paul Diem), including a breakdown of the many variations of the interjection "boo!" in Ptydepe, including several sentence-length ones.
Much of the play consists of Gross' desperate attempts to get the memo translated. Translator Richard Masat (Richard Goldberg) can't translate it without a translation permit, and Dr. Kunc, a licensed "Ptydepist," can't issue a permit unless Sophie signs off on more permits, something she says she can't do unless Masat translates the documents, all of which, of course, results in a vicious circle of bureaucracy-the other obvious theme of The Memo-and inactivity.
Czech playwright and dissident Havel, who was the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989 to 1992) and the first president of the new Czech Republic (1993 to 2003), wrote the original play The Memorandum in 1965 (Paul Wilson translated it in 2012 as The Memo), presumably as a critique of autocratic government, though the critique extends to corporate culture and anywhere where bureaucracy, paranoia, and conformity prevail. Gross' attempts to get to the bottom of what's going on at the agency are frequently, frustratingly, and hilariously thwarted by elaborate office birthday parties and extensive discussion and excitement over what people will have for lunch-"It's turkey day!" Anyone who has spent any time in an office setting-or has at least seen Office Space-will appreciate the humor and the truth, if exaggerated, of such scenarios.
Gross ultimately agrees to step down as director in deference to Balas, who ultimately asks for his resignation. In the second act, Balas, as director, is beset by much of the same inefficiency and frustration as Gross was, and ultimately rehires him as "staff watcher," whose job is to spy on all the goings on at the agency via peepholes (it is at this point that Gross takes off his suit jacket, revealing that he is missing one sleeve, fitting in with the fashion sense that dominates the agency). Before it's all over, Balas cedes the director position back to Gross and Ptydepe is banished in favor of a new language, Chorukor, which is the antithesis of Ptydepe. In the end, everyone marches off to lunch, fork and knife in hand.
With The Memo, Single Carrot manages to balance its tendency toward avant garde, progressive theater with excellent acting and staging, resulting in one of the best local productions this year.