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Photo: newmusictheatre.org
Photo: newmusictheatre.org

The Sounds of Surveillance

When an authoritarian regime spies on its citizens, what sound does it make? According to George Orwell, that sound is the background noise from a telescreen. For Margaret Atwood, it’s blessings from an ambiguous but menacing religion. And for the Alliance of New Music-Theatre’s interpretation of Protest, totalitarianism can sound a lot like the echo of Dupont Circle traffic.

Alliance is currently performing the famous play written by Václav Havel, former political prisoner – and Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first president – in Dupont Underground through May 21. One of DC’s best-kept secrets, Dupont Underground is a public arts space that served as a streetcar station until 1962.

Because Protest has such a long history of censorship, the subterranean setting was phenomenal. Audience members accessed the space by descending under Dupont Circle from an easily-missed entrance. Lit by only a few glowing lights, the drop in temperature was sudden and significant. Viewers made their way down the winding tunnel to reach the stage, passing by a makeshift bar and graffiti-covered walls.

Protest marks the cavernous art space’s first play, and in the repurposed labyrinth, car horns and sirens play a much more sinister role. The echoes bouncing off concrete walls in the underground tunnels have each character darting nervous looks over their shoulders as they discuss – and avoid discussing – their political situation. According to Alliance’s Artistic Director, Susan Galbraith, the venue plays as much of a role in the performance as the actors do.

“One night, we had helicopters circling throughout the performance so they [emphasized] the danger that the [characters] lived under surveillance all the time,” Galbraith said. “So, it does change the performance enormously, but I also think sometimes it can get so quiet. And we can still feel that immediacy, intimacy and internal monologue.”

Protest depicts an encounter between a formerly jailed activist, Vaněk (Drew Valins), and a wealthy man who has invited him over, Staněk (David Millstone). Staněk needs Vaněk’s help releasing his daughter’s fiancé from political prison, while Vaněk needs Staněk’s influential signature on a petition. Both characters need something from one another, yet the constant surveillance under which they live requires them to perform an elaborate and awkward dance of small talk.

After his imprisonment for defending a radical punk band’s creative freedom, Havel’s plays were banned from public performance. But that didn’t stop the revolutionary. His plays became known as “apartment plays,” performed for private audiences. With Havel often playing his everyman alter-ego, Vaněk, the two-character play became known for its sense of urgency and claustrophobia. In addition to the venue itself, Dupont Circle contributes to the message of the play as well.

“Dupont Circle has been a place of ferment and social movements in Washington,” Galbraith said. “In my time, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the transgender movement, the climate movement now – all of these things – [are] thrilling to me. There’s something happening upstairs that feeds this down here. So, I’m hoping all of our pieces will have that dimension.”

But the ever-present threat of surveillance and political turmoil isn’t the only familiar aspect of the play. Toward the end of the hour plus-long production, Staněk must battle himself as much as Vaněk battles the repressive regime.

In a fierce monologue, Staněk weighs the pros and cons of signing the petition. Is the loss of social status worth a clear conscience, or should protest be left to the known dissidents? As Staněk’s desire for revolution collides with his lofty reputation, Protest reminds its audience that regardless of social status, we the privileged share a responsibility to incite change.

“Now, more and more people are talking about Havel,” Galbraith said. “One guy who came to our show held up a picture of a poster in one of these marches in Seattle. It said, ‘Where is Václav Havel now?’ So, I think there is this feeling of, ‘Where is he now? Where is that voice? Where is the voice of total morality and challenge to us?’ And we’re looking for the leaders, hopefully not to just do it for us.”

Catch performances of Protest at Dupont Underground on May 19 at 7:30 p.m., May 20 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and May 21 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$30 and can be purchased on Dupont Underground’s website.

Dupont Underground: 1500 19th St. NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org