Vaclav Havel was not in a good mood when he started writing Temptation, his verbose, depressing denunciation of man’s inherent weakness in the face of oppression. It was the mid-80s and he was serving yet another stint in a Soviet prison for dissidence in his home country of Czechoslovakia. Inspired by “some rather bitter prison experiences,” Havel employed the Faust legend to explore moral entropy and condemn the bony Czech souls who flip-flopped like fish in the Soviet frying pan.
Temptation, playing now at the Indoor Forest Theater, is an exhausting, difficult work devoid of much hope. Havel’s characters are a menagerie of disgusting human traits. They bounce off each other on the cramped stage like electrons in an excruciating fission of pride, empty lust, jealousy, envy and dishonesty.
This play is supposed to be funny, but instead it’s just bizarre, exhausting and frequently uncomfortable to watch. At times as many as 11 actors are crammed onto a stage less than half the size of a tennis court. Director Peter Eberhardt has done a commendable job of blocking the action, considering the sheer density of actors on the stage, but during scenes with heavy traffic, much of the action is static because of the space constraints. To further congest things, four large panels have been set like obstacles across the tiny stage and the actors are forever shrugging their way past each other and these brightly colored blockades.
Fortunately, the acting is strong. Thomas Burks is convincing as Dr. Foustka, the conflicted, egocentric, ultimately weak scientist/novice Satanist at the center of the play. Transformed by a potent cocktail of fear and black magic from a stuttering, nervous, but likeable little man into a jabbering, sexually abusive, self-serving worm, Burks manages to weave reams of exhausting dialogue into an emotionally nuanced performance.
Handed the most interesting role, D. Joseph Cunningham doesn’t disappoint. He’s tremendous as the crippled, devilish Fistula. With hands like claws, a leering pop eye and decaying hoof-feet, Cunningham is perfectly corrupt as he yelps and screeches and snorts his way through the play’s various intrigues.
Peter Eberhardt is excellent as the director, a horny homosexual with a taste for underlings; Barbara Metz produces the most multidimensional performance as Foustka’s abused but optimistic lover; and Deborah Curtis is downright spooky as a young woman sacrificed to the scientifically totalitarian institute by Foustka’s ever-wilder attempts at self-preservation. In addition, John Affinito does a creepy game show host thing as the sniveling deputy director, and the tango team of Richard Robles and Aletia Egipciaco perform a cramped but gorgeous number on the smoke-choked stage in the final scene.
Yet it’s neither the pompous sexual tyrants nor the suppurating sycophants that makes Temptation so difficult to digest. This play is begging for an update. It could be condensed, whole characters could be cut and Havel’s use of black magic as a moral antipode to science could be replaced by something more immediate, like corporate greed. The whole piece feels forced and dated and the dialogue is burdened by great expanses of socio-philoso-bureau-scientific babble so thick you need a ritual knife to cut through it at times.
On top of all this, you can’t help thinking that Havel is just shooting fish in a barrel. Yes, all human systems are susceptible to inevitable moral entropy. Things, as Yeats so famously said, fall apart. The center cannot hold. Nothing is pure but God Himself (Itself).
And yes, as humans we ultimately possess the ability to be ethical creatures. And yes, a few, like Havel himself, have the strength to retain their integrity when their feet are held to the proverbial fire and their lives and freedom are at stake.
But most of us are like poor Foustka. We strive for transcendence and freedom but are beaten into compromise, dissolution and even cold acts of betrayal by fear. Like anyone who makes a deal with the devil (i.e. who plays both sides against each other) Foustka gets burned, but in his eagerness to deliver political allegory, Havel has overlooked the opportunity to further delve into the intriguing moral conflicts raging inside Faustka.
Temptation was a logical choice as an addition to the Staff Players canon—it’s highly political, absurd and thought-provoking. But in its original form, on the Indoor Theater’s tiny stage, it feels a little too ambitious and a little too musty.
TEMPTATION PLAYS FRIDAY AND SATURDAY AT 8PM WITH A 2:30PM MATINEE ON SUNDAY. $16/GENERAL; $12/STUDENTS, SENIORS AND MILITARY; $6/CHILDREN 12 AND UNDER. THE INDOOR FOREST THEATER, MOUNTAIN VIEW AVENUE AND SANTA RITA STREET, CARMEL. 624-1531 OR WWW.CETSTAFFPLAYERS.ORG. ENDS 5/22.