Review: ‘Adapt’ – but don’t cave in

Aneta Kernová in the Wilma Theater’s world premiere production of “Adapt!,” written and directed by Blanka Zizka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

By Margaret Darby

Blanka Zizka’s “Adapt” is a story about breaking with the past. The play is her story of her 1977 emigration from Czechoslovakia in a sense, but it is not an autobiographical account. “Adapt” is about deciding what is important in our lives: art, music, freedom, and fitting into our world – surviving without becoming part of the problem. Zizka’s life has and always will be devoted to finding the best way to produce art, but the message of her play is to remain open to new possibilities and art. As the former Czech Ambassador to the United States for the Czech Republic and signer of the Charter of 77, Martin Palouš, said, “Art is not a political program, but it can shake people out of their shells and motivate them to do something.”

Zizka’s first play uses a framework that leaves many doors open, figuratively and literally. Young Lenka, a Czech refugee, arrives in the West with open eyes stinging from the shock of Western excess. Zizka searched for a Czech actress for the role and chose Aneta Kernová, whose wide-eyed energy and wiry spunk are beautifully matched against Aneza Papadopoulou’s old woman. Papadopoulou gives the harridan crone a surly bite as she advises and questions Lenka, encouraging her to go forward and telling her to go back to her country. The old woman gives Lenka a perfect foil to whom she reveals her dreams and nightmares.

Campbell O’Hare enacts a young Western woman who has gone too far with her gyrating, groaning and crass sexuality – the seamy side of freedom. (O’Hare also turns on a dime to play Lenka’s innocent young sister, Hana.)

When the old lady shows Lenka what could go wrong with her freedom, Lenka is appalled. The vision of life with a philandering and egotistical husband, Pavel, was beautifully written. Steven Rishard nails the pompous super macho mate and Krista Apple, as the Lenka at age 35, conveys a passive repulsion of her marital imprisonment which seethes even when she is under bubbly bathwater.

The set, by Matt Saunders, makes use of two moving doors, a large wall as a backdrop (with doors in the center).  The projections by Christopher Ash change the backdrop with vivid splashes of color containing American icons, Czech writing, the magical waters of Rusalka the water nymph, and Ronald Reagan’s California ranch. Mariana Sadovska coordinates various musical interludes, both live and recorded.  Jered McLenigan plays guitar and sings Karyl Kryl’s protest songs and Lenka’s Grandfather (Michael Rosse) plays a Chopin nocturne as he is wheeled in while seated at an upright piano. Sadovka’s original compositions are a chanted narration for the old woman’s oracular pronouncements. Sadovka also uses recorded music to enhance a hauntingly beautiful vision of Rusalka the water nymph as she climbs out of the water to Dvorak’s Song to the moon.

Young Lenka must decide whether she will take the easy way out or fight for the truth. She finds out early on that fighting the pig-masked Orwellian bureaucrats is impossible, but escaping to her new homeland does not end the fight. She tells the bureaucrats to adapt, but she, too, will have to do the same.

Blanka Zizka has written more than a play. In “Adapt”; she has written a very complex love letter to the United States and to the Czech Republic – a timely warning similar to the one the old woman gives to Lenka that any extreme will lead to disaster and that keeping institutions alive does not mean letting them devour our souls.

If you go.  “Adapt”, written and directed by Blanka Zizka is at the Wilma Theater at 265 South Broad runs until April 22, 2017.  Tickets are $25 to $35, $10 for students.  For more information contact the Box Office at 215-546-7824 or