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Black comedy in The Builders

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One of my favorite things about the Czechs is their sense of humor. I’m usually against overgeneralizations, but I’m struck by how much the Czechs truly seem to have a cultural sense of humor that permeates to the individual level. It’s difficult to explain in theory; it’s much better seen onstage.

Recently I went to see The Builders at Švandovo Divadlo, a Czech theater that projects English subtitles onto the wall above the stage. The play follows an attractive young couple as their house is renovated. Their live-in builders are slow, incompetent, and ultimately swindlers. Both halves of the couple, as well as several of the builders, repeatedly fall out of the house upon exit, or into it upon entrance. Throughout the play, the missing porch steps are promised and never delivered, providing a constant reminder of work left undone.

The head builder reprises, “It’s too complicated for laymen to understand…” as his pre-chorus for demanding more money and evading explanation or responsibility. The wife placates her angry husband, dreaming with increasing desperation about the beauty their house will eventually embody.

As in a Shakespearean comedy, every problem quickly intensifies from inconvenience to exasperation. The shingles hit the proverbial fan when the husband accidentally pushes a female builder down the indoor staircase, where she promptly dies. Terrified (as this is only his first murder, and practice has not yet made perfect), the husband shakily approaches his wife, who helps him hide the body in their cellar.

Gradually, the theory and practice of murder become more natural to the young couple as they off every last builder. The weapons become increasingly extreme and comical. They started off innocently enough, with no gore or flamboyance from a fall down the stairs. The climax, though, is all the drama of a microwave on a head, plugged into a wall, with the electrical chord strummed like an electric guitar.

Sitting in the audience I was, to my knowledge, the only English native present. Through the wonders of live theater subtitles, I was able to read every line in English, and laugh along with the audience of black-humored Czechs. Granted occasionally, my reading speed or the speed of the projections caused me to laugh ten seconds early or late, but for the most part, I felt like one of the group. The play was a joy, but to be able to participate in the culture was invaluable.

I’m an English teacher for adult professionals. On more than one occasion, from more than one student, I’ve heard horror stories about their home renovations. Sitting in the audience of the theater, I imagined each of my students watching this play and personally relating to the ineptitude of the builders. And that’s what I mean when I say I got the opportunity to “participate in the culture.” It would seem that this play has quite a strong grounding in reality, murders notwithstanding. And this is my perception of the Czech sense of humor. Take a humdrum and pervasive annoyance, expose the absurdity, add the intensity of the darkest thoughts that you’d never say out loud, and stir well.

*I should note that in its original form, The Builders is a Danish play. Still, it was translated to the Czech language, performed by immensely talented Czech actors, and enjoyed by a Czech audience- making it a thoroughly Czech experience. As for the Danish sense of humor, I’ll have to take a trip to Hamlet’s hamlet and see for myself.

The Builders is running through June at Švandovo Divadlo. January dates are as follows:

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