Commons Theatre

What with the fall of Czech communism and the ascendance of the new theatriarchy led by Vaclav Havel, American audiences expect a political kick from Czech plays. We want a taste of the martyrdom of 1968, the resurrection of 1990. We want a piece of the glory that is Prague.

Jacques and His Master may be something of a disappointment in that regard. Sure it was written by Milan Kundera–Czech exile extraordinaire and author of that well-known Prague Spring chronicle The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And sure, its very title suggests themes of authority and subjugation. But Jacques and His Master doesn’t push European current events, or even suggest them in a way that your average American theatergoer would be likely to pick up on. Set in 18th-century France and concerned with a master and servant who resemble Quixote and Panza more than, say, Brezhnev and hard-line former Czech president Gustav Husak, Kundera’s play comes across looking less political than picaresque.

Of course you can argue that the author’s dissident status makes everything he writes ipso facto political. Kundera concedes as much in the introduction to the play, where he explains how it came to be. Banned from publishing after the Soviet invasion, Kundera says he was approached by a director who “proposed that I write a stage adaptation, under his name, of Dostoyevski’s The Idiot.” Kundera refused, not simply because Dostoyevski was Russian, but because Dostoyevski’s writing reflects Russian irrationality: “a universe where everything turns to feeling; in other words, where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth.”

Having just been subjected to a literal attack of Russian irrationality, Kundera was in no mood for a descent into Dostoyevskian mysticism. On the contrary, he says, he “felt an instinctive need to breathe deeply of the spirit of the post-Renaissance West.” He therefore adapted Jacques le fataliste–a 200-year-old “explosion of impertinent freedom” by that renaissance man of the French Enlightenment, Denis Diderot–instead.

So don’t expect to see the Passion of Prague reenacted in Jacques and His Master. It’s there, of course–but only as a sort of nimbus, a faintly subversive glow that flares up a little whenever Kundera and his characters play their bantering, speculative, Diderot-esque games with language and philosophy, art and love. Which, when you come down to it, is practically all the time.

What’s actually present onstage is two guys–a clever servant and his well-intentioned but hapless master–walking down the road: ambling toward a rendezvous in another town. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims or Beckett’s lost tramps, they tell each other stories to pass the time. Then they stop at an inn, where they hear and tell more stories.

And that’s pretty much it for about two-thirds of the play. The stories are invariably about friendship, sex, and betrayal. Or rather, the equation friendship plus sex equals betrayal. Jacques tells how he stole a night with his best friend’s beloved; the master tells how his beloved was stolen by his best friend; an innkeeper tells the tale of a certain Marquise de la Pommeraye–“a widow of good manners and birth, of wealth and dignity”–who took elaborate revenge when her beloved started treating her like a friend.

These stories are always being interrupted by other stories, arguments, theological disquisitions, and even alternate endings. I read somewhere that Diderot was inspired by Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, who said, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; they are the life, the soul of reading.” Kundera shares Sterne’s enthusiasm, too: Jacques and His Master never goes in a straight line when it can deviate somehow. Indeed, deviation becomes the point of the exercise, insofar as Jacques and the master realize that they themselves are fictional characters–stories telling stories–and try to come to grips with that knowledge. It’s all very modernist. Very existential. Very energetically, bracingly post-Renaissance. Dostoyevski would have been revolted.

He probably wouldn’t have thought much of the production, either. Except for a bad moment when Prague fever apparently overtook him and told him to dress a constable in a brown shirt, connoting fascism, repression, Stalin–i.e., the whole associative mess–Calvin MacLean’s direction is fast, light, and funny. Just the sort of vacation from Eastern heaviness Kundera must have been hoping for. Milan Palec’s wonderfully rough and simple arrangement of curtained boxes allows MacLean’s sharp nine-member ensemble to cover a tremendous amount of ground with a minimum of fuss.

Not just a good actor but one of the most enjoyable stage presences in Chicago, Cameron Pfiffner is perfect for Jacques. His mix of amusement and acridity makes a nice foil for Paul Henry Thompson’s almost waifish master. I love Morgan McCabe’s smoky, tough allure as the innkeeper; and Colleen Crimmins’s sheer enthusiasm as Justine, Jacques’ conquest. Scott Lowell does a fine job of manipulating the gap between his good looks and the moral ugliness of the villains he plays.