Upon entering the Center for the Arts Theater, I was greeted by men in white shirts and spiffy ties who ripped my ticket and led the crowd to a modest, almost-forgotten theater in the back. On a wooden stage surrounded with chairs sat a disheveled clown serenading a blushing middle-aged man in the third row. Quirky, entertaining, and secretly evocative, it was the perfect emblematic prelude to “Vatzlav,” a comedic farce that somehow combined clowns and a grown boy clothed in diapers with Oedipus Rex and heavy political overtones.
Wesleyan’s rendition of “Vatzlav” premiered on Thursday, April 10 in the CFA Theater. Directed by Wesleyan alumna Lily Whitsitt ’06, this production featured the Wesleyan spirit and creativity that we all enjoy.
“Vatzlav” is a play written in 1970 by Polish dramatist Slawomir Mrozek. Vatzlav, the play’s protagonist (played by Peetie McCook ’16), is a slave who finds himself freed through circumstances beyond his control and lands on an unknown island. Throughout the play, he follows Providence to find the promised fame and fortune associated with freedom. This journey leads him to odd jobs and even stranger characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Bat, two frantic and lisping clowns, and a gullible girl who believes that babies are conceived by the mind alone. Throughout the play he experiments with ways to be free, because in the end he really doesn’t know what that means. “Vatzlav” catalogues the social and political injustices of our world through laughter and unrelenting parody.
This high-energy, circus-like production is episodic in structure and is frantically composed of 77 scenes. Some scenes were entirely action, some silent, some short, and some long. The nature of the small cast meant that nearly every person had multiple parts, and generally no one was the same character for more than two scenes in a row.
Helen Handelman ’16, the assistant stage manager, described the behind-the-scenes production of these hurried costume and set changes.
“We set up the costumes back stage in such a way that exactly what was needed for each change was put out,” Handelman said. “Someone would come off stage and literally in two more lines they needed to be on stage.”
For such a fast-paced execution, everything and everyone needed to be organized, particularly in the details. Handelman described the importance of maintaining the costumes and thus the overall production’s integrity.
“You need to do it fast, but you need to make sure it looks right,” Handelman said. “What’s the point of doing it quickly if it doesn’t look good?”
Misdirected, these rapid transitions and energetic scenes could spell disaster. Flying chickens, broomstick erections, and a drag queen striptease don’t suggest tastefulness or sophistication in and of themselves, but in the hands of Whitsitt they managed to do so.
The cast had nothing but praise for Whitsitt, a New York theater director and producer who returned to her Wesleyan roots to direct this production.
“She’s awesome,” McCook said. “She is serious about theater, but is not a serious person. She’s a lot of fun.”
The cast members stressed the benefit of Whitsitt’s collaborative process.
“For her [Whitsitt] the idea of the ensemble and what each actor brings is very important, and how she can use that to build each actor’s character individually,” said cast member Anika Amin ’14.
Handelman also found that Whitsitt’s own Wesleyan experience translated to her effective directing technique and relatability.
“She understands doing theater at Wesleyan because it really wasn’t that long ago,” Handelman said.
Through the likely combination of her excellent directorial skills and ability to relate to the students, Whitsitt also helped the actors to find themselves within their characters. Amin, who played Sassafrass, one half of a peasant duo, had to a find a quality of Sassafrass that she related to.
“Something my director gave me to work with at one point in the creative process in understanding Sassafrass is that he is seeking validation and not just from the world he is in or from society, but from his other half, Quail,” Amin said. “There is something very human in all of these characters. Trying to find a way to stand up for yourself and wanting a little bit more.”
McCook similarly sought humanity in his character, Vatzlav. At first, he didn’t relate to his character at all.
“When I first read it I thought that Vatzlav was the most boring character on the planet,” McCook said. “But then as we did more, I met with Lily and we talked about the character and we sort of figured out that the only thing Vatzlav wants to do is survive and get by. That’s when it sort of clicked for me.”
These zany characters are unsympathetic at first glance. They are live cartoons that don’t really seem to have a heartbeat. But as the play progresses, they relate to each other and you can’t help but relate to them.
“Even though there are these crazy and big characters, the relationships between them are really real,” Handelman said. “That includes the audience’s relationship with Vatzlav. He talks to the audience more than he talks to anybody else.”
Trevor Wallace ’15, an attendee, noted the freedom of this audience-character relationship.
“You were a part of it,” Wallace said. “But it wasn’t so serious that you felt like you were locked down in it. You were able to approach it from an angle you wanted to approach it from.”
This play undeniably garnered barrels of laughs: it was spontaneous, ridiculous, and boisterous. But behind the jokes and behind the laughter there was a very deliberate commentary on the human experience. McCook noted these morals.
“Trying to get by and make the best of what’s happening,” McCook said. “Ultimately I think that’s what the play is about: just figuring a way to turn any situation into a positive one and making it work for you. If it doesn’t work, try something new.”
Vatzlav is a character that is in a constant state of transition, whether geographically or emotionally. He becomes human in the midst of political strife and questionable morals and in the end he renounces the notion of Providence in favor of self-identity and integrity.
Mrozek once stated, “Humanity is an undefined transitional phase,” and whether it be Vatzlav’s evolution of character, the unresolved spontaneity of the political drama, or the quick costume changes experienced back stage, everything was in a state of transition and suspense.
“Vatzlav” teaches us the world’s injustices, but it also highlights the world’s hopes. Hopes for beauty and honesty and love, be it in someone or across an unknown sea. Mrozek, Whitsitt, and the entire cast taught us this through the most universal mode of communication: laughter.
“Laugh,” Amin said. “Laugh for us. Laughing is our love.”