Bringing Down the Big House

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Tomki Nemec / Spectrum Pictures For TIME

Petr Ctvrtnicek and Jiri Labus perform the play Ivanek, Buddy, Can You Talk...?" at Bory Prison in the Czech Republic

Two fellows dressed in old-fashioned convict stripes sit nervously on a pair of beaten wooden school chairs. "Jirka, see what I see?" gasps the short one, his blue eyes jumping out of his buzzed scalp. "I am afraid to open my eyes," whimpers his decorous mate, prompting bouts raucous laughter from the 102 prison inmates that make up the audience, seated just a spit away. But there's a bitter undertone to the audience's merriment — not because the men watching the performance are jailbirds, but because the men depicted in the performance remain free.

The performers on "stage" are the Czech Republic's star comedians, Petr Ctvrtnicek and Jiri Labus. They're performing a play titled Ivanek, Buddy, Can You Talk?, whose script comprises extracts from police wiretap transcripts that in 2004 blew the lid off the endemic corruption plaguing the Czech national pastime, soccer. And the hilarious conversations between match-fixing functionaries and referees has become a theater hit — its main character, Ivan Hornik, aka Ivanek, former boss of Prague's Viktoria Zizkov club, has become a legend. This fall the duo is finally bringing Ivanek to prison. The character Ivanek, that is; the real-life Hornik is currently appealing a suspended seven-month prison sentence, a hefty fine and a painful 10-year ban from soccer handed down following his conviction on charges of bribing match officials to fix results.

The success of their play on Czech stages has prompted the comedians to take it behind bars, on a tour of prisons that has brought them to this 129-year-old octagonal jailhouse in the western Bohemian city of Plzen. "Not even prisoners speak like that," says a bespectacled inmate librarian after the play is performed in the jail's spacious church-turned-gym, which sports a huge communist-era mosaic mural featuring idealized athletes. (A skier resembles a young Ivana Trump). The show's appeal lies in Ivanek's playful usage of language, a trait he shares with perhaps the most famous Bory inmate, dissident playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel. While Havel fiddles with the aparatchik newspeak in his absurdist dramas, Ivanek works in expletives and boorish cant.

Statistics-prone sports reporters counted Ivanek using 205 curse words during an 18-minute phone call. Comedian Labus, the voice of Marge in the Czech-dubbed version of The Simpsons when he's not playing Ivanek, sees some similarities between the shows: "It is all about words, except that Marge would have never said f---." So distinctly Czech are the wordplays that get the laughs in Ivanek, Buddy, Can You Talk? that they would be incomprehensible rendered in English.

Laughs aside, though, the Bory prisoners feel hard-done-by in comparison to what they see as the light punishment handed down to Ivanek — despite being caught on tape offering bribes, his sentence is suspended for five years, which means he remains a free man as long as he doesn't break the law in that time. The cons believe that, like them, Ivanek should have done time. "Those involved in the case should be here among us," says the librarian, who earned himself five years for tax evasion. "They would not be doing badly here," adds an inmate barber, sentenced to seven years for credit and tax fraud. The barber's mullet suggests that while Ivanek, should he ever find himself here, would have to part with his flashy clothes and gold chains, but could at least maintain his curly perm. Despite Ivanek's skill in distributing carps — soccer underworld code for bribes — the actors agree he is just a small fish. "We bring Ivan to jail and we escort him away," Ctvrtnicek says. "We are not leaving him there." Many of those in the audience, however, would prefer to see the real-life Ivanek among them.