In little theater productions, it is unusual for the set to be so striking that it comments on the action. However, the first thing you notice about AXIS Theatre's production of Vaclav Havel's "Largo Desolato" is the precarious angle of the bookshelf-lined wall in the protagonist's living room.
The book-covered wall tilts so far into the room it seems a hair's breath from falling. As designed by David M. Barber, this is a place where words can kill.
Then there's the sofa, whose upholstery is covered with writing -- a reminder that when Havel was still regarded as a dissident in his native Czechoslovakia, he routinely scattered copies of his manuscripts in odd and assorted hiding places.
So, from the first visual image, AXIS' production leaves no doubt about how closely "Largo Desolato" mirrors the former situation of its author, who is currently president of the Czech Republic, after years of imprisonment for protesting human rights violations.
In a sense, the play is about the dissident as celebrity. In this case, the dissident is a philosopher named Leopold Nettles, who has been accused by the government of "intellectual hooliganism." Suddenly everyone wants something from Leopold, and most of the action consists of people dropping by his apartment, making inquiries about everything from his health to his love life to the government's ultimate demand -- that he denounce himself.
One of the play's stickier challenges is the formality of the language, translated by another Czech native, Tom Stoppard. This is further complicated by the deliberate repetitiveness of the text, which lends the play the absurdist quality of a nightmare.
Director Cynthia A. Croot's uneven cast is at its best when it meets absurdity with more absurdity. As laborers who are Leopold's unabashed fans, Joey Scherr and Jason M. West are as jovial and inseparable as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Similarly, Croot cleverly casts Felicia Shakman in the dual roles of Leopold's present and future mistresses, emphasizing the sameness of the romantic demands placed on him.
As for Leopold -- Mark F. Bernier plays him as the passive foil for his active, eccentric visitors. The more that is asked of him, the more immobilized he becomes. By definition, this intentionally lackluster approach isn't exactly compelling, but Bernier grows on you.
"Largo Desolato" was written in 1984, and much of the strength )) of AXIS' revival derives from our knowledge of how Havel's life has changed in the interim. Indeed, one can't help thinking that ++ as an official public figure, Havel is probably more haunted than ever by the nightmarish flood of expectations depicted in "Largo Desolato."
Where: AXIS Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road.
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 2 p.m. Through March 28.
Call: (410) 243-5237.