In 1989, just a mere eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the beginning seeds of The Velvet Revolution began in Prague. It was the beginning of the end of their communist reign and the beginning of a new era. It would be an era that would force the entire party to relinquish power in Czechoslovakia, see the resignation of Gustáv Husák as president (after he appointed the first non-communist government in 40 years), and the election of Václav Havel as their new leader. It was a non violent, powerful revolution that brought about a sudden and dramatic change. The Untitled Theatre Company No. 61 has worked on several Czech history pieces over the years, and now they are presenting their first fully staged production of THE VELVET ORATORIO, an operatic/play hybrid telling the story of the revolution seen through the eyes of Havel's signature character, Ferdinand Vaněk.


We begin with news of the falling of the Berlin Wall given to us by the United States Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black (yes, THAT Shirley Temple), played by Andrea Gallo. Then we’re off to an interrogation room where Ferdinand Vaněk (Matthew Trumbull) is being held by a police officer (Ross DeGraw). He toys with Vaněk, trying to get information from him; information regarding a march the officer thinks Vaněk may be a part of and states he only wants to keep things from getting “out of hand.” Sure enough, they do, and a rumor that a student is killed in the melee spreads like wildfire, enraging everyone around. From there we go from “found text” scenes (partly based, according to press notes, on recently released U.S. State Department documents and corresponding Czechoslovakian / Soviet documents and interviews with journalists, diplomats, and ordinary people who were in the streets of Prague during the revolution), opera chorus numbers, and powerful scenes with Havel’s character Ferdinand Vaněk piecing together the revolution, the removal of power, and the aftermath. It may seem like a large mixture to swallow, but it’s a powerful structure that goes off with a bang.


Librettist Edward Einhorn and Composer/Director Henry Akona have crafted a delicate, layered, and powerful retelling of the Velvet Revolution, keeping it informative for all but simple enough for an audience member without much prior knowledge of the event to grab on for the ride. The production is structured into pieces. There are the “Found Text” speeches, gathering the facts of the day to day movement of the Revolution. There are the opera choruses, beautifully sung by a large ensemble including the lovely voices of Moira Stone, Terence Stone, John Gallop, & Jenny Lee Mitchell. Then there are the Vaněk scenes, played with confusion and firecracker dead pan timing by Matthew Trumbull. Trumbell is fantastic here, showcasing our own face into the fray with bewilderment, humor, and a take charge performance. However he’s not up there alone in those scenes, and there are plenty of scene stealing moments from Ross DeGraw as a conniving officer, Mick O’Brien & Yvonne Roen as two pushy old friends, and an almost Albott and Costello routine by Mike Maloney & Michael Villastrigo comically describing the Martin Šmíd story (my favorite scene of the night occurred between Trumbell and DeGraw in a bar, which brimmed to a near perfection from the two talented actors). Akona stages it simply, never allowing busy bodies to distract from the central story, but leaving way for striking and powerful images. He also projects the English lyrics to the Opera as they’re sung (which are sung also in English). And Einhorn really achieves a nail biting rhythm, especially in his writing of the Vaněk scenes. They’re a beauty to behold.


Of course, not everything runs perfectly, this being only the second performance that I attended. There were a few flubbed lines, the Martin Šmíd comedy scene definitely needs tightening, and the Opera solos were so wonderful I could have definitely spent more time hearing their wonder. But I feel by the next round of performances (they perform on and off again in November, December, and January) they’ll have a true rhythm and grace. Even with a few hiccups, it’s filled with beautiful moments to witness. Perhaps I was a bit more emotional, as I attended Velvet on the anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall, or perhaps simply between the strings, the opera graces, and the stirring dialogue, acting, and direction, this wonderful ensemble truly moves you. It definitely moved me.



Liberetto by: Edward Einhorn Music and Direction by Henry Akona Original Dramaturge Karen Lee Ott Starring: Matthew Trumbull, Ross DeGraw, Craig Anderson, Andrea Gallo, John Gallop, Jonathan Kline, Jillian Kuhl, Mike Maloney, Jenny Lee Mitchell, Mick O'Brien, Eric B. Oleson, Yvonne Roen, Anna Marie Sell, Emily Shankman, Phoebe Silva, Moira Stone, Terence Stone, Michael Villastrigo Content Advisory: Some Language Playing at: Bohemian National Hall (321 East 73rd Street) Dec 12-13 & Jan 13-14 For Tickets: http://www.untitledtheater.com/

FINAL THOUGHTS: An original, beautiful evening of Opera, drama, and history. More evenings should be so bold.

MATEO MORENO is an actor, playwright, and director in New York City. He owns and runs TheArtsWireWeekly.com and has had four of his plays produced, including BOHEMIAN VALENTINE, HAPPILY AFTER TONIGHT, WITHIN OUR WALLS, & LOVES ME LIKE A ROCK. He is currently working with Boomerang Theatre on a short play piece and spends his days working on the Broadway hit MATILDA.

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