Volume 73, Number 5 | June 2 - 8, 2004

Theater


The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald
Presented by Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater
La MaMa E.T.C.
74A East 4th Street
212-475-7710, Thru June 13


Marionette theater tackles Oswald

By JERRY TALLMER

Photo by Orlando Marra
A puppet of Oswald, the title character of “The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald” at La MaMa E.T.C.
In a backyard in Dallas, Texas, early April 1963, a man in his underwear assembles a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, throws on shirt and pants, tucks a pistol into his belt, and hands his wife a camera.

“What is it you are doing?” she says, unable to suppress her laughter.

“This is my hunter of Fascists outfit,” he says. “Here, take a picture.”

“You look so silly!” she says.

“I said take a picture,” he brusquely commands.

“Karasho, karasho,” says the wife. “I take picture.” She cannot stop giggling.

At the first-floor theater at La MaMa, 74A East 4th Street, these two figures, Lee Harvey Oswald and Marina Prusakova Oswald, are only six or seven inches tall. The Fairies of Destiny who bestow gifts upon Lee Harvey Oswald at his birth (“I’ll give him a short temper” . . . “Ability to read books far above grade level” . . . “Ability to tell lies” . . . “Courage of wife-beating” . . . Courage to travel far, far away” . . . “Arrogance” . . . “Two courts martial” . . . “Mail order gun from Chicago” . . . “I will make his name suddenly known to everybody in the world”) are puppets two or three feet tall.

The actors who work the seven-inch people as well as the larger Fairies of Destiny are all, well, life-size. As is the man who created and directs the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater’s “The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald,” and in it plays “a kind of secret [KGB/CIA] agent who comes in to start or stop things.”

His name is Vit Horesj, and he was born in Prague on January 12, 1950, which made him 13 years old, going on 14, on that Friday in 1963 when the name of Lee Harvey Oswald would suddenly become known to everybody in the world. Closer to home, it made university student Vit Horesj 18 years old on August 21, 1968, the day the Soviet tanks came grinding in to crush the life out of Prague Spring.

“The weird thing about the assassination of John F. Kennedy,” Horesj says, “is that I had been a good Young Pioneer, a believer in the Communist system, so I had only believed bad things about Kennedy. When he was killed, I thought: Good, the bad guy got what was coming to him after the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis.

“But the next day the newspaper Rude Pravo, which means Red Justice, came out with this eulogy for Kennedy, the fallen hero. That was the first crack of my belief. I believed in Stalin, you know. Stalin, the great statesman. How come the whole world turned upside down?

“And then came 1968. Until ‘68, I had clung to the belief that the Socialist system was merely misguided, constructed wrong. ‘The Russians don’t understand us.’ But as a philosophy student in ‘68 when the tanks came in, I came to the conclusion that it was all misguided from the beginning.”

Horesj arrived in New York in 1979, veered off into live theater, then went back to his first love, founding the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater in 1990 at the Jan Hus House on East 74th Street, where there’s a collection of antique marionettes. The first show he did there was a “Faust” that same year.

“Most Czech kids have toy marionette theaters. Mine was my mother’s, from 1920.

“This show,” says Vit Horesj, “has been on my list of themes to do shows about for seven or eight years. I don’t know where I first read about Oswald as a human, blundering, clueless man who accomplished all sorts of amazing things, forcing the Russians to take him in, then to keep him, then to let him go, then making the State Department let him get out of Russia to the U.S., along with his Russian wife.

“He’s just such a . . . so UNIMPORTANTLY a man — that’s why people don’t believe he did it.” An unimportant man, be it said, with a demasculating wife problem and an even more crushing mother problem.

No, Horesj doesn’t believe in the conspiracy thing — in no way.

“Seventy percent of Americans and of people in the world do believe in some conspiracy theory, because it [the assassination, the whole thing] is so insane. Partly why I don’t believe in it,” says Horesj, “is because I actually lived in a state that was [Orwell’s] ‘1984’ — one huge conspiracy — and I know it’s so evil and so complicated that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to do it [i.e., pull off anything so evil and so complicated] here.

“The actors and I” — there are seven of them plus himself, working dozens of characters — “had long discussions. Some of them believed in a conspiracy of some sort. But then suddenly one member of the cast didn’t know who the Rosenberg’s were!

“Just think,” says Vit Horesj. “If Oswald had got that other job two weeks before he got the Texas Schoolbook Depository job, he never would have been there. If it had rained on November 22, Kennedy would have been in a plastic bubble in that car . . . It would take HUNDREDS of people to engineer the assassination as it did happen.”

The whole human cast — Deborah Beshaw, Michelle Beshaw, David Michael Friend, Ron Jones, Sarah Lafferty, Theresa Linnihan, Emily Wilson, Horesj himself — read various books about Oswald, in particular Priscilla Johnson’s “Marina and Lee” and the paperback edition of the Warren Commission Report.

“Marina and Lee, that’s a whole other play,” says the Vit Horesj who lives in the East Village with his wife Bonnie Stein and their daughter Sarazina. “Those poor kids — Oswald’s two daughters — what happened to them?”

You’ll recognize the JFK marionette when you see it. It’s the one that’s the knight in helmet and armor. The Czechs have always been good at irony.

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