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Czech play is a kind of rare gem

  • KENNEDY THEATRE
    Renata (Jenilea Heath) commands the attention of Dr. Edward Huml (Murray Husted) in the University of Hawaii-Manoa production of "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration," playing at the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre.
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The University of Hawaii-Manoa theater program is so well known for meticulously staged productions of Asian theater in English that its presentation of works by modern European playwrights are sometimes overlooked.

The current late-night production of Vaclav Havel’s surrealistic one-act play, "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration," is a good example.

Yes, it’s being presented as part of the 2011 Late Night Theatre program rather than in "prime time" on the main stage, but it is still welcome. Czech plays aren’t often staged here.

Havel wrote it during the "Prague Spring" of 1968, a time of political liberalization and increased individual freedom that came to an abrupt end with a Soviet-led invasion of the country. Havel’s plays were banned, and he was eventually sent to prison by the hard-line communist government.

As with other plays that have been translated from another language, one must wonder how much has been lost in the process, and how

"THE INCREASED DIFFICULTY OF CONCENTRATION"

» Where: Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa campus

» When: 11 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday

» Cost: $10; $8 seniors, military, students and UH faculty and staff; $5 UH students; tickets go on sale at the door one hour before show time

» Info: 956-7655 or www.hawaii.edu/kennedy

much subtext would been instantly recognized by Czech audiences in 1968.

As staged and directed by Tyler Nichols, the sexual subplot is the most accessible. Dr. Edward Huml (Murray Husted) is juggling relationships with his wife (Meg Thiel) and his mistress (Jenilea Heath). Each knows about the other, and both are trying to get him to dump the other. Huml puts them off with the same vapid lines and stunningly insensitive comments — appearing to make the same promises to both of the women while actually making no promises at all.

Huml is also being interviewed by a government social scientist (Kristina Tannenbaum) and her assistant (Dani Belvin). However, a key piece of their equipment isn’t working properly. More time is spent trying to get it running than actually using it. When the assistant finally gets it working, the machine says it is tired and wants to rest.

Talk about government workers in action!

Huml becomes ever more wary of the social scientist’s true objectives, but by the end of the play he is using some of his vapid romantic lines a third time in trying to seduce her.

Husted defines Huml as an insecure, insensitive jerk. Thiel makes the wife the most interesting and sympathetic character. Heath plays the mistress as a shrill nag.

The condition of the malfunctioning machine is discussed in terms that could be taken as sexual. Belvin delivers her share of them with a straight face and neutral demeanor that allows the audience to interpret them as it will.

The story also includes a surveyor (Andrew Giordano) and a bombastic supervisor (Jae Iha) who glares and bellows and does nothing to help resolve the problem with the machine.

Some aspects of government bureaucracies — communist or capitalist — seem universal.

Fans of Havel’s work will note there are seven characters in Nichols’ staging; some productions throw another woman into the mix. Based on opening night, it’s unlikely including another woman would make Havel’s observations on Czech communism or the nature of human happiness any more accessible in this production.

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