Art has always shone brightest in the midst of political oppression. And Mad Cat Theatre Company is tackling both art and political oppression during a time when those topics are controversial at best. February 23 through March 12, the eclectic and offbeat production company will open its 17th season by putting on two plays by subversive Czechoslovakian playwright Vaclav Havel.
Havel, an intellectual who also happened to be the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, was deemed a dissident whose plays were banned in his country’s oppressive Communist regime in the mid-'70s. His political philosophy was one of anti-consumerism, humanitarianism, environmentalism, civil activism, and direct democracy.
Mad Cat is blending two of Havel’s once-banned plays, Audience and Protest, into what can be described as immersive-experience theater.
“We’ve turned the stage into a happening,” Mad Cat president and director Paul Tei tells New Times. “When the audience walks in, it’s as if they’re walking into an underground art event and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they’re in the show.”
That show is two separate plays written by Havel during a time of paranoia and strife while living under a Communist regime that had deemed him a “social parasite.” Audience and Protest are part of the playwright’s Ferdinand Vanek series. Vanek is the name of a recurring character in these plays, as well as Havel’s alter ego. Inspired by Havel’s personal experiences, the plays mainly tackle the moral dilemmas of life in Czechoslovakia’s Social Republic of the 1970s and '80s. Havel’s anti-consumerism and antigovernment viewpoints are layered within as they tackle Cold War politics while mirroring the very real fears that have crept up in our current political climate.
“These plays deal with things that seem like, to us, were long ago and somewhat impossible,” Tei says. “Yet now we’re suddenly dealing with the concept of having our freedoms slowly silenced.”
By presenting both plays in one setting, Mad Cat has turned Havel’s works into a sort of play within a play. Tei says they’re careful not to be too heavy-handed in the way the politics are presented. In one play, Havel’s protagonist, Vanek, is jailed for antigovernment activities, while in the other play, the character wrestles with an old friend who seems be content with siding with the oppressive regime. Both plays offer a nuanced look at resistance and injustice while shining a light on the darkness of censorship and tyranny.
“We don’t want to tell audiences what they already know,” Tei says. “We don’t want to Oliver Stone them to death. We’d rather approach it with a message of ‘Yes, there’s shit going on in the world,’ but show how it filters through us and how it makes its way into the work. Most theater tends to preach to the choir, and if you don’t present both sides, you don’t have a conversation. Theater has to start conversations.”
The challenge lies in the way the message is communicated, particularly in an era when there’s so much noise and where everyone seems to be screaming at one another.
“You look at social media, and there’s one side saying, ‘Hey, we’re just as bad as them if we keep whining,’ and the other side is gloating like their football team just won, and it’s the Patriots, and nobody likes them,” Tei says.
Tei adds that Mad Cat’s goal is to present the work as art and then allow the audience to take it from there. “We don’t want to present these plays as information, as if it’s some dusty book on a shelf or some news feed that you’re getting on your phone.”
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Mad Cat's take on Audience and Protest was the brainchild of the company's director of audience, Theo Reyna. Through Reyna’s efforts, Mad Cat was awarded a $25,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant for “previously banned works and censorship.” Production of Audience and Protest was paid for by half of that grant, and the other half will go toward a work in June, when the theater company will tackle the topic of censorship in Florida. “We’re going after Rick Scott hard on the next one,” Tei promises.
With Audience and Protest, Mad Cat is looking to show how people might be forced to compromise their integrity, particularly in the arts and specifically in the theater, in the face of waning freedom. And as it always does, the production company wants to approach the subject in an unconventional way, by making audiences feel it and, thus, earn it.
“I feel like now more than ever, we as artists have to find a way to communicate in a way that isn’t so easy for audiences to access,” Tei says. “I want to give audiences a kind of spectacle that they won’t get anywhere else — theater that is environmental more than presentational.”
Mad Cat Theatre Company's Audience and Protest
8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, February 23 through March 12, at the MTC Sandbox, 9816 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores. Tickets cost $30 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors. Visit madcattheatre.org, mtcmiami.org or call 305-751-9550.