A Review of “Protest”

Source: The Bagpipe / www.bagpipeonline.com / By Ellie Brown /

“Those that say that individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.” -Vaclav Havel

Powerful speeches, comical policemen, and the realities of humanity were all put on display in the show “Protest (and other writings)” that was performed on behalf of the Covenant College Theatre Department, directed by Professor Camille Hallstrom.

The cast consisted of alumni Mark Makkar Gabriel (‘18) as Havel/Vanek and Jonathan Austin (‘18) as Stanek, as well as freshmen Cara Smole, Mary Brook Diamond, and Emily Cothran as ensemble members. “Protest” is a one-act play that was written by Vaclav Havel, who was the president of Czechoslovakia in 1990, and as Prof. Hallstrom writes in her director’s notes, “led The Velvet Revolution—bloodlessly transitioning Czechoslovakia, in mere days, from the most conservative Communist government in Europe to a politically free market economy.” Havel was a peacemaker who said and believed that “truth and love will overcome lies and hatred,” following in the footsteps of men like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.

As a whole, “Protest (and other writings)” was an aesthetic mixed media work of art. Prof. Hallstrom added several of Havel’s speeches to the beginning of the show, setting the stage for the actual play. These speeches combined slideshows of photographs and quotes from Havel with the actions of the actors on stage, giving the audience a different perspective on the play itself.

While not a comedy in and of itself, the show definitely had its comedic moments.

During Havel’s “Reports on My House Arrest, January-March 1979,” Cara Smole, Mary Brook Diamond, and Emily Cothran played the parts of the police officers. Their interpretation of the police officers’ actions was comical and theatrical, as all of them were dressed in black and over-exaggerated their movements.

The contrast of this with the report Havel was narrating overtop of their actions was fascinating. He described their vigilance as constant, and while it was never particularly violent, it was aggressive at times.

Marie Bowen (‘20), who has been in numerous productions in and out of Covenant, commented on the comical portrayal of the policemen’s actions.

“I think having the policemen be somewhat comical allowed the audience to be able to take in the heaviness of the oppression from the police towards [Havel], because we were able to laugh and it wasn’t so heavy that we couldn’t enter in,” Bowen said.

She went on to say that the comedy seemed to be there so as not to overwhelm the audience with the plight of Havel, but still give them a sense of what it must have been like for him to be constantly watched by the policemen.

Another fascinating aesthetic choice on behalf of the director was to have two men and three women recite Havel’s “Speech to the United Nations World Summit for Children, September 1990.”

Each member of the cast took turns wearing Havel’s suit jacket and saying a piece of the speech. The overall effect of this was incredibly powerful, as it highlighted that Havel did not just represent one person, but a whole country.

“I found this choice visually and auditorily helpful in realizing that [Havel] wasn’t only himself. His views and ideas were not only expressed by him but embraced by others,” Bowen said.

Mark Makkar Gabriel’s portrayal of Havel informed his later portrayal of Vanek in “Protest.” Vanek is quiet and unassuming, much less assertive than his friend Stanek, played by Jonathan Austin. Their interactions with each other highlighted the truly human ways in which we wrestle with the potential consequences of our actions, and how so often, our over-analyzing leads to simply doing nothing.

Bowen also addressed this, saying the play “wasn’t presented in a way that brought shame and guilt, but rather a tasteful calling to stand up for human dignity and to not be so caught up in our own heads. I felt Jonathan Austin’s portrayal of Stanek was very apropos to how so many of us feel… but we should be standing up for the helpless in a way that isn’t demonstrative and shouting but in a way that is calm and reflective and thoughtful and helps call others to join in this fight.”

Bowen’s comment goes back to Gabriel’s portrayal of Vaclav Havel that remained constant throughout the play. Havel’s personality was kind and gentle. He wasn’t shoving these ideas down people’s throats, but instead presented them in a way that convicted those who were listening. Even now, almost 30 years later, his words still ring true in the ears of audience members, encouraging them to stand up for human rights and not remain silent.

“Protest (and other writings)” was performed in Sanderson 215 on September 28-29 at 8:00 p.m., October 5 at 6:30 p.m. and October 6 at 2:30 p.m., each followed by a faculty panel discussion.