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"The Memo" at Single Carrot Theatre

Chris Hartlove

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see "The Memo" at Single Carrot Theatre. It's up until April 27. 

The Rousuck Review: "Memo" at Single Carrot Theatre

Here’s the premise: You’re required to comply with an official document – but you can’t make sense of it. What is it? The thing seems to be written in a foreign language.

With the IRS deadline tomorrow and the Affordable Care Act deadline just behind us, “The Memo” sounds like a play about U.S. bureaucracy in 2014. But this political satire about bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and repression was written in Eastern Europe in 1965.

“The Memo,” translated here by Paul Wilson, was the second play by the late Vaclav Havel  – dissident, political prisoner and, eventually, the first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic. 

If you staged “The Memo” “as is,” it’d have plenty of modern-day resonance. 
But at Single Carrot Theatre, director Stephen Nunns has bumped up that resonance.

For starters, at the unnamed organization where “The Memo” takes place, the employees wear ID badges with American flags. Director Nunns has also replaced most of the first names of Havel’s character with the real first names of his actors. This is a play about us, now.

Rich Espey plays the director of what is, in this production, a government agency. His character is called “Rich” Gross, and the play begins with him finding a memo on his desk. He reads it aloud.

This goobledy gook turns out to be a new language called Ptydepe, a language intended to “make official communications more precise.” 

Now Rich has to get the memo translated, and in fact, the agency has a translation department and a Ptydepe instructor. Paul Diem plays him -- wonderfully -- as a pompous professor.

Rich Espey’s increasingly frustrated, cowed character takes his memo to the instructor and to the translation department. Along the way, he gets demoted, promoted, fired and reinstated -- all at the hands of the scheming bureaucrat who starts out as his deputy. She’s portrayed by Sarah Gretchen as sexy, self-serving and power-hungry. 

Espey goes from flustered to angry. 

“The Memo” isn’t easy to perform. For one thing, many of the actors have to speak Ptydepe – something they do quite well. Director Nunns also manages to cleverly locate his production somewhere between – or perhaps in both -- the 1960s and today. Manual typewriters coexist with PowerPoint presentations.  

Designer Rick Gerriets’ turntable set keeps everyone moving in circles. Leslie Yarmo’s costume designs may be excessively outlandish, but they reinforce this ludicrous office culture. And, ludicrous as it may seem, if you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ll recognize some of what goes on in this one.

If it’s disturbing to see Vaclav Havel’s critique of totalitarian bureaucracy fit so neatly into 21st century America, well, credit the playwright’s understanding of human nature, and Single Carrot Theatre’s persistently creative approach to meaningful modern drama. 

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

More on this show

Single Carrot Theatre has scheduled several special events in connection with this play, you can learn more here

The cast and crew of "The Memo" were interviewed on WYPR's "The Signal."

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.