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The Narodni Divadlo and Laterna Magika

When I was on my hiking trip the other week with my work, I was caught up in a discussion with one of my co-workers. Evidently he was a dancer, and enjoying the finer arts as I do, I asked if I could catch one of his shows. Naturally, I thought it would just be at some local theatre.

So when he invited me to his performance at the Narodni Divadlo, I was understandably surprised.

The Narodni Divadlo is one of the top performance halls in Prague. This was no small burrito. This was a massive Chipotle-sized bean-filled monster of dance and theatre.

Narodni Divadlo

the People's Theatre or National Theatre: an eternal struggle for translators

The Narodni Divadlo is divided into two parts. The original part and the “new stage”. They’re quite easy to tell apart, as one is perhaps one of the finest examples of neo-Renaissance architecture and art in all of Europe. It was built in the late 1800s as a national theatre, that is to say, as one that was dedicated to the Czech nation, where the Czech language would be the primary language of performance.

Nation and state weren’t the same things back then, as this was all under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nation was more of a concept regarding a people that were united by language, religion, and culture, but not necessarily state. In the nineteenth century, this became a very important idea, as many nations were beginning to feel under-represented by their imperial overlords and were pushing for independence. This was especially true of the Czechs.

Narodni Divadlo

Narodni Divadlo, looking down the street along the river

Having a theatre dedicated to performances in the Czech language was a rather huge thing back then, as for the thousand years under much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, Czech language had been for the most part suppressed, in large favor of the German language. In the 1800s, the Czech language had been having something of a renaissance, with a series of phenomenal Czech artists and writers coming to the forefront of the European art scene.

Narodni Divadlo

the roof of the divadlo

The idea of the Narodni Divadlo wasn’t always kosher for the rulers of Prague and Bohemia though, as the expression of Czech nationalism oftentimes pushed them towards two very dangerous movements in regards to the Empire: independence and pan-Slavism. If you take a stroll around the Narodni Divadlo, you can see those pan-Slavic sentiments, as many of the Slavic tales are told through the paintings that decorate the palatial complex, many reminiscent of Alphonse Mucha’s own Slavic Epic. Which makes sense, as Mucha was very much part of this movement.

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Narodni Divadlo next to its companion "New Stage"

My friend wasn’t playing in that epically beautiful building. His troupe was operating out of the New Stage. The troupe, called the Laterna Magika, had its beginnings in the 50s as the world’s first multimedia theatrical performance, using computers, projections, and so on to interact with the stage and the audience. The founder, Joseph Svoboda, brought the troupe to Brussels, wowed the world at a theatrical exposition, and soon became a staple of the Czech theatrical diet. His Laterna Magika was the first to experiment with various lighting effects, like black light, which has become a regular effect on the tourist theater scene, but it was originally done by Svoboda’s group.

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the entry to the New Stage

In the 80s, Laterna Magika was able to push for its own building. They built the New Stage--a horrendously and profoundly ugly building--attached to the beautiful Narodni Divadlo. The New Stage is part of the National Theatre and operates under its auspices. It’s just incredibly curious how such an incredibly ugly building came into being. With such buildings, I’m always left to wonder if the architect ever stood back and was proud of his creation, or did he turn up his trench coat collar and try to sneak out the back of a room filled with angry and confused people.

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O beauty! Thine form knowest many faces! Or not.

Today, Laterna Magika runs a mix of new modern and bizarre visual works, as well as one or two staples from Svoboda’s original repertoire. My friend invited us to watch him dance in the production of Wonderful Circus, which falls under the latter category.

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Beautiful buildings everywhere! Except here.

He met us at Café Nona, which is a café/bar that serves as a regular event place for live music and exhibitions itself and is literally directly underneath the stage. Our friend brought us into the middle stairwell though, and then showed us throughout the backstage. We got to see the corridors, green rooms, and make up rooms, and then up the stairs that led to the backstage itself. Then we got to hang out on the stage, soaking in the view that the actors and dancers regularly took, sans the blinding light.

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the player's view

We then left him so he could get ready. We had a quick beer in the bar and then made our way to our seats, the show was about to begin.

The Wonderful Circus involves four main characters, with a small stew of backups. The story follows a sad clown and happy clown as they look upon a nude Venus who seems to be under a weird control of a guy who’s kind of like a director, but is also a lion tamer and photographer. The clowns fall in love with Venus, but for the most part she’s under control of the possibly evil photographer guy. The clowns at times save her, but then the photographer guy saves her. It’s also possible that the photographer guy is the protagonist, and perhaps it’s the clowns that are evil, but its impossible to tell since Venus seems to like them all. I suppose she’s kind of a metaphor for the stereotypical Czech girl… woah!

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the stage is set for the Wonderful Circus

The stage is bare, except for a white curtain that surrounds it. A projector is used with various images and motion pictures to set the scene, making way for a hot air balloon ride, swimming, running down roads, and first-person puppeteering. All around it’s an entirely novel and neat part of the production. It also allows for the clowns and lion taming photographer to be at once real, and then at another time going behind the curtain and “appearing” on the projector, where they can swim, or do any other number of things in pre-acted scenes.

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the props wait backstage

The play is for kids, but does feature a bunch of nude paintings, so I’m guessing Americans might not appreciate the show in entirety for their children, as we come from a land where a past Secretary of Justice once covered up the boob of a statue of the Lady of Justice.

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the curtain's up, get ready!

So if you’re in Prague, definitely check out the Wonderful Circus or one of the Laterna Magika productions. It’s really a unique event and are quite affordable. And if you’re not a prude, quite family friendly as well. Tickets and times, along with the other Laterna Magika shows, can be found at this site.

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