The Memorandum

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 15, 2013

’The Memorandum’ continues through Jan. 19 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown
’The Memorandum’ continues through Jan. 19 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown  (Source:Flat Earth Theatre)

Flat Earth Theatre gives a spirited reading to Vclav Havel's 1965 play about life under bureaucratic rule, in a production running through Jan. 19 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

"The Memorandum" was written during the Soviet era. Havel, who later went on to become the president of the Czech Republic, was certainly thinking, to some extent, of the absurdities of life under a centralized government, but his observations about how any bureaucracy -- governmental, corporate, academic, military, religious -- takes on a life of its own make this play a universal comment on the human condition.

Vera Blackwell's translation sounds natural and unforced; the cultural translation to the American stage works, for the most part, though there are moments when one wonders whether various small points might have made more sense to a Czech audience 33 years ago.

The general shape and feel of the story will be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has read Kafka (or seen Terry Gilliam's movie "Brazil"). Mr. Gross (Jim Remmes), the general manager of a nameless "organization," sits down at work one morning to discover a memorandum written in a foreign language. As it turns out, the language is Ptydepe (pronounced Pitee-depay), an artificial language created for the purpose (as artificial languages, such as Esperanto, sometimes are) of removing ambiguity and sidestepping the inbuilt emotional charge of naturally occurring languages.

Chasing down and eradicating ambiguity and uncertainty may, to some, seem a noble pursuit. Of course, the idea of a vast and all-controlling government that would eradicate human weakness and folly also sounded good, once, on paper; we see how that turned out. (A hands-off government that plays a limited role in the lives of its citizens, leaving their wellbeing in the hands of corporations, also seemed at one time like an earthly paradise, and still does to some, but in the event its track record is also far from perfect.) In the case of Ptydepe and Mr. Gross' office and staff, this urge to put things into perfect and perpetual order is doomed to failure, but not before it generates endless, whirling riptides and eddies that generate, rather than alleviate, chaos.

In his quest to get the memorandum translated, Mr. Gross discovers that his own deputy general manager, Mr. Ballas (Chris Chiampa) -- and his always-present, silent sidekick, Mr. Pillar (Chris Anton) -- not only knew about Ptydepe and didn't tell him; they have been fervent advocates of the new language. As it turns out, they are just as interested in a new order that the adoption of Ptydepe will entail. Tables turn rapidly, roles are reversed, and the organization's every crack and fault come into glaring focus as Mr. Gross descends deeper and deeper into the labyrinth over which he has unsuspectingly presided.

Along the way, Mr. Gross stumbles through a Ptydepe language tutorial, taught by Mr. Lear (Kevin Kordis), an unstoppable pedant who may have met his match in the preternaturally perky teacher's pet, Miss Thumb (Emily Hecht). We learn more than we may want to about Ptydepe in the classroom scenes; indeed, Mr. Lear is happy to impart more about Ptydepe than anyone (other than Miss Thumb) could bear to hear. (Given that there are literally millions of words, all carefully cross-indexed and tabulated, and broken into sub-words, so as to annihilate any last whisper of non-specificity, Mr. Lear could easily lecture all day, all night, and all day for years. One almost fears that he might.)

Eventually, Mr. Gross finds his way to the translation department, overseen by a fearsome trio of buffoons, Mr. Stroll (Patrick Curran), Mr. Savant (Kevin E. Parise), and Helena (Lindsay Eagle), who has the title "Chairman" but the attitude of Party Girl. This phalanx of entrenched ineptitude stalls anything resembling progress; these three are the Holy Trinity of obstructionism, devoid of any talent or function except for their own particular specialties, which are narrow, precise, and engineered to cancel each other out.

The very nadir of this all too mundane Inferno -- the ninth circle, if you will -- is occupied by the organization's spy, George (Matt Arnold), who literally inhabits the space between the walls and whose bailiwick is to surveil everyone in the building and report any impropriety or infraction, however slight. Never fear: Mr. Gross will also get a taste of this deepest degree of damnation. His rapid downward spin brings to mind the innumerable and sudden purges and other convulsions of socialist governments.

But the nature of a bureaucracy is to spin in place, not to make progress, and where roles have once been reversed, they can be reversed again. No sooner has a change of the guard taken place at the top of the food chain than the ground, always slippery, begins to crumble under the new general director's feet. The only spark of hope lies with a kind hearted and sensible young secretary named Maria (Dori Levit), the polar opposite of Mr. Gross' own secretary, Hana (Marty Seger Mason), a ditz who is evidently on hand for the sole purpose of fetching food into the office and then eating it at her desk. Surely it's no coincidence that Maria -- lone pinprick of light in this wasteland of dim wits -- has a brother who works in the theater. That is a very nice joke indeed from the late Mr. Havel.

Jake Scaltreto's scenic design acts as shorthand for the play's central theme; the set has a blocky, utilitarian look that's undermined by traces of disorder of the very sort that creeps into any system (or, in this case, language). Devon Jones provides a hilarious and suitably complex linguistic invention, which the cast chortles or fumbles, depending on the role. Kyle Lampe's thudding, grinding, monolithic sound design amplifies the sense that one is caught in a great, ceaseless, and inhuman machine, providing a rhythmic framework for the play's black humor. Director Victoria Rose Townsend distills Havel's sensibility and infuses it with an undercurrent of resilient humanity.

"The Memorandum": continues through Jan. 19 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.