Theater for a New Audience deserves a medal for its brave attempt to do the impossible. “The Good Soldier Svejk” may be one of the great antiwar novels of all time, but this virtually unreadable 1923 work by Czech author Jaroslav Hasek is only marginally more engaging in Colin Teevan’s stage treatment. (Picaresque tale of a simple-minded foot soldier slogging his way through WWI defeated even Brecht.) But the failure on the literary battlefield is entirely honorable, largely due to a memorable performance by Stephen Spinella (“Angels in America”) as Svejk, the universal soldier who fights for us all.
The big question about Svejk — an incompetent and much-abused dog soldier who dutifully trudges across the battlefields of the Austro-Hungarian Empire dodging bullets as he searches for the fighting regiment that keeps trying to ditch him — is how much of a fool he actually is. When queried at one point by his Colonel: “Lieutenant Lukas has told me that you are an idiot. Is that so?” Svejk cheerfully agrees, “I am, sir.”
But the European wisdom has always been that this good-natured naif is only as foolish as he needs to be to save his skin; that he is, in fact, a shrewd and calculating man who plays the fool in order to survive.
Although Spinella leaves the door open on that character interpretation, he cultivates Svejk’s innocence, playing the Everyman soldier with a gangly awkwardness and a sweet, goofy grin that is at once endearing and heartbreaking. This is not a face you want to pull a trigger on — and if generals would only allow themselves to see this face when they looked at their enemy, there would be no more wars.
Although Spinella holds the story in the palm of his hand, he is never alone onstage in this 13-member-strong ensemble production. Peter McRobbie and Richard Poe are amusingly pompous as the military brass baffled by Svejk’s inability (or unwillingness) to play by the rules. As Lukas, the unlucky army officer to whom Svejk is attached, Ryan Shively (“Twentieth Century”) has the luxury of playing a character who isn’t a pure object of satire, and he makes the most of it by giving Lukas an inkling of intelligence.
After a steady exposure to Svejk’s passive-aggressive antics, Lukas learns to regard the war from the perspective of the soldiers who serve under him. “It’s a nightmare,” he finally says of the fighting. “It’s the end of the world.” Sensing approval from Svejk, Lukas begins to see his simple-minded batman in a new light as well. “Maybe you’re not such an idiot after all,” he says to Svejk. “Maybe it’s your way of surviving all this.”
It’s a strong, telling moment — and one too rare in a production that doesn’t concern itself with such human exchanges. On the contrary, the thrust of Dalia Ibelhauptaite’s high-concept helming has more to do with the visualization of the nightmarish imagery that Teevan has plucked from Hasek’s novel.
Working on the fractured Expressionist planes of Gideon Davey’s set — a Dali-esque landscape of broken timepieces, slanting tables and yawning trapdoors — the Lithuanian director takes a painterly approach to the grotesque characters and bizarre situations that confront Svejk as he treks across his war-ravaged country in search of his unit.
Like all dream worlds, this one makes a visual impact. But for much of Svejk’s journey, the mindlessness of it can also lull you to sleep.