by PFTC writer and Prague Pulse Magazine editor Seneca Garrison
Cimrman English Theatre’s second voyage into the world of the legendary Jara Cimrman is so easy to love it’s absurd. Of course, the show was absurd for more than just that one reason. If you’re unfamiliar with the plays of Jara Cimrman, read up a little here or you wont get much out of this review. In a nutshell: he’s a legendary Czech playwright, inventor, explorer and overall genius who doesn’t exist and never has. He’s the creation of Jiří Šebánek, Ladislav Smoljak and Zdeněk Svěrák and the Cimrman English Theatre have translated two of his plays into English, ‘The Conquest of the North Pole’ being the second.
The show begins with a line up of ‘Cimrman historians that have gathered to educate the audience with some of the many highlights of Cimrman’s life. Audience members who are new to Cimrman spend this opening attempting to orientate themselves in the play and ask. “Is this part of the story?”, “Do they always do this?”, and “Isn’t this supposed to be about the North Pole?” The answer to all questions is “Yes”. And right when the material begins to feel familiar the play interrupts itself with a broken stage curtain. The historians are forced to hold ladders, move chairs, and keep dignity while the curtain takes on a life of its own. It’s physical, it’s witty, it’s charming. And they haven’t even gotten to the North Pole section of the night, yet.
While watching the performances of Brian Stewart, Brian Caspe, Peter Hosking, Curt Matthew, and Michael Pitthan, it is easy to see the common comparison to Monty Python in the delivery of the humor which is dry, self aware, and silly in such a smart way. The actors, even Matthew with his portrayal of the “dumb one” character, come across as gentlemen. Yes, they can pose in vignettes in their underwear, slump around in unison on skis, or sing with a shabby guitar but they still seems very put together and poised. In my opinion, that is the Czechness of the play coming through – silly but never too silly. The audience is right there with the actors, though, and they eat it up. Everyone seems to be just dying to applaud. Most of the Czech members of the audience know where all of the jokes are in the play and, if you watch, they have their hands ready to clap before the punch line even hits.
Not to say that the actors had it easy. They hit their marks with excellent comedic timing that even a few slip-ups here and there were worked in to make the jokes even funnier. There was one scene in particular where the actors use audience members to recreate famous Cimrman stills. The whole scene was mostly improved and it shown as one of the funniest moments of the night.
The production elements were simple but good. The only thing that really took me out of the play was a moment when a projection of the Northern Lights shines across the stage and a copyright watermark can be seen also being projected. An easy thing to fix, but distracting, nonetheless. The costumes showed a nice deliberation to subtle variety. Everyone was a little different with one trench coat, one cape, one coat, and one sweater. You may notice that I don’t have many criticisms for the acting, but the beautiful thing about such a sarcastic script is that it is so hard to criticize because it’s already laughing at itself. There were some Czech jokes that didn’t quite translate, or my knowledge of local history isn’t quite there yet. I’m not sure if it is because I’ve seen a Cimrman play before, but ‘The Conquest of the North Pole’ was much more comprehensive, smooth, and lively than the company’s first play. I have had many Czechs tell me that ‘The Conquest of the North Pole’ is their favorite Cimrman play and I can see why. It’s very easy to love. I’d recommend anyone living in Prague to go see this play and get a taste of the playwright locals love so much.