‘The Memo’ brings a dystopian message from Vaclav Havel

Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in 'The Mem.' (Photo by Anna Gelman)
Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in ‘The Mem.’ (Photo by Anna Gelman)


3 Stars

“The Memo” is an interesting if not important piece of theater as it was written by Vaclav Havel who went on to become a player on the world stage in the role of reformer. Havel served as the last President of Czechoslovakia, then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

Written in 1965, it was originally translated into English as “The Memorandum” by British writer Vera Blackwell in 1967. The Organic Theatre production is using the later translation from 2006, encouraged and approved by Havel, written by Canadian Paul Wilson and re-titled “The Memo.”

This is an absurdist black comedy that might be described as Monty Python meets “Office Space” in the “Twilight Zone.”

The action takes place in an office setting full of bureaucratic nonsensical hubbub as workers in an unnamed agency work to institute the newly devised incomprehensible scientific language of “Ptydepe”(pe-tie-de-pee) which promises to improve the efficiency of communication through enhanced precision of meaning.

Ptydepe is in fact a metaphor for political philosophies and the institution and individuals who support various schools of thought.

Presented as a gender neutral production in two acts we follow the journey of Director Gross (Tricia Rogers) trying to navigate layers of bureaucracy to have a memo that has been written in Ptydepe translated.

Gross is stifled in the quest at every turn by the scientist Kunc (Kate Black-Spence), who is charged with instituting the policy, as well as the translator Masat (Schanora Wimpie) who is not allowed to take action without first obtaining a permit from the chairperson Talaura (Laura Sturm) who cannot issue a permit until the memo is translated. The entire vicious circle has been devised by the devious and self-serving Deputy Director Balas (Joel Moses) aided by his ominous silent companion Kubs/Suba (Subhash Thakrar).

In the process the moral character of each individual is revealed as they work to advance themselves or their agenda while protecting their turf and keeping their jobs by trying to please the all-powerful unseen upper management leaders who provide little guidance and where facts are disregarded.

The lack of communication and atmosphere of fear leads to deception, mistrust, and chaos even as Director Gross tries valiantly to interject a more humanist approach.

This is of course prophetic as the situation reflects the very similar situation in which the playwright Havel finds himself some thirty years after penning this composition.

“Memo” director Bryan Wakefield has skillfully managed all aspects of this production, no doubt, with a sympathetic and humanist approach aided, I assume collaboratively, by Assistant Director Nyssa Lowenstein.

The “Pythonesque” scene changes by choreographer Erica Bittner suggesting a zombie like industrial precision against the suitably drab monochromatic gray set design by Terrence McClellan, and enhanced by the thoughtful lighting of David Goodman-Edberg was a perfect backdrop for the flamboyantly absurdly patterned costumes of Jeremy W. Floyd.

McClellan also perfectly and logically incorporated the challenge presented by the supporting pole center stage in the Greenhouse’s upstairs theater. Also the entrance of The Monitor (Colin Jackson) was a delightful surprise as was the location of the coffee pot and supplies.

The outstanding cast assembled by Nik Whitcomb does a superb job of managing the difficult dialogue and absurd situations with an air of normalcy necessary to pull off this complex ruse.

Perhaps there was none better than Nick Bryant as the evangelical language instructor JV Brown who with bombastic eloquence, and the assistance of his totally absorbed number one acolyte Kalous (Stephanie Sullivan), manages to have us actually believe that we are understanding the guiding principles of Ptydepe.

Both the Director’s Assistant (Mary Mikva) and Translation Assistant (Kris Downing) contribute significantly as they represent the proletariat position by generally keeping their heads down and seeing to the mundane tasks directed by their superiors.

This was written to shine a light on the dystopian dysfunction of Soviet style Communism, the reality of which was generally seen as reflected in Western business environments of the post war era and sadly resonates in the current political climate throughout the world today.

You might enjoy this as an historical experience or a cautionary tale.

DETAILS: “The Memo” by Organic Theatre Company is at Greenhouse Theater (upstairs), 2257 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, through June 16, 2019. Running time is about 90 minutes with one intermission.  For information visit call 773-404-7336 or visit Greenhouse Theater Center.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago



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