Vaclav Havel began work on his play "Temptation" when he was a political prisoner and his plays were banned in his native Czechoslovakia. A decade later, he was president of the country.
An absurdist playwright couldn't have scripted it better, and in fact, throughout Havel's dissident days, the government inadvertently kept him supplied with a steady stream of material. In this case, copies of Goethe's "Faust" and Thomas Mann's "Dr. Faustus" mysteriously appeared in his jail cell.
Even though Havel's plays were once produced solely outside of his native land, staging one here is a special challenge; not only are the politics foreign to us, but the playwright's metaphorical .. approach is far more European than American. Happily, neither of these problems hampers the fine work of the Bowman Ensemble, which has mounted an intelligent and entertaining production, directed by Joseph T. Brady and being staged outdoors at McDonogh School.
Havel's characters can come across as more symbolic than naturalistic, so one of the chief tasks for a director and cast is to invest them with some degree of recognizable humanity. Bradford Cover makes seemingly effortless work of this in the lead role of Dr. Foustka, an amiable but edgy scientist employed by a government institute that promotes pure science and attempts to discredit such so-called pseudo-sciences as black magic, metaphysics and superstition.
On a more important level, the institute fosters community and discourages individualism. And needless to say, Dr. Foustka's interests lie in just those areas his employer shuns. After secretly dabbling in the occult, he is visited by a foul-smelling cripple who calls himself Fistula and is clearly Havel's stand-in for Mephistopheles. Grinning and leaping about like a demented monkey, Thomas Van Voorhees brings an unmistakable charm to this repulsive figure; he embodies the allure of the forbidden.
But is Fistula an informer for the devil or the government? Or is there a difference? Havel's script becomes a bit didactic on this issue, a shortcoming handled as adeptly as possible by Marie Winn's felicitous translation and the Bowman Ensemble's living staging.
The latter is further enhanced by the spirited performances of the company as a whole, and particularly Robb Bauer's oily portrayal of the institute director and newcomer Christie Farris' sweet, innocent depiction of Marketa (Havel's version of the legend's Margaret).
The production also benefits from designer Marshall Walker's relatively simple, but inventive set; a central turntable is surrounded by four illuminated pillars whose sides, when swiveled, reveal panels suggesting everything from sorcery to surveillance.
Besides the overall impressiveness of this production, the Bowman Ensemble is to be commended for the coincidence of good timing. Havel is once again in the news due to his recent resignation in the face of Czechoslovakia's impending dissolution into two separate states. Although this will leave him with more time for playwrighting, it will be interesting to see what form his art takes now that he is no longer operating in the restrictive political environment that fueled his previous work.
When: July 31 and Aug. 8, 9, 11-15 at 8 p.m.
Where: Child's Memorial, McDonogh School, Owings Mills.
Call: (410) 243-3676.