In Budapest, men seem to take center stage and politics tend to take a backseat-but everything is not as it appears.

Publication: American Theatre
Author: Bent, Eliza
Date published: April 1, 2010

NOVEMBER '09 WAS A SPECIAL MONTH IN Central and Eastern Europe: It marked the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it the end of Iron Curtain ideology and practice. I was in Hungary that month for the Budapest Contemporary Drama Festival (BCDF) and despite "20 years ago" being on the news and on everyone's lips, the mood of the festival was decidedly apolitical - at least, it seemed so to foreign guests like me. In fact, if any theme marked the eighth iteration of the BCDF, it was a kind of cultural mystery- a certain inscrutability that led us international visitors to misunderstand the Hungarian theatre before us over and over again.

The festival, which was launched in 1997, only recently became an annual event. Work is drawn mainly from independent, emerging and alternative companies, and is usually presented alongside selected plays from one other country. (Previous "guest countries" have included Poland and Israel, but setbacks in funding scaled '09 programming back to a smattering of plays from different countries; the festival plans to host shows from the U.S. in 2010.) Not surprisingly, budget woes were a point of discussion that ran throughout the festival. In fact, severe governmental cutbacks have led to the creation of a national festival association, which now rates festivals in order to ensure that funds are properly allocated. Four thousand festivals claim to exist within Hungary (though the association only recognizes 400), divided into four categories - arts, folk, open-air theatre and gastronomy. The association has a numerical rating system that, when described by New Theatre's artistic director István Marta, seemed Kafka-esque. Everyone knows that not all festivals are created - or funded - equally, and the BCDF is no different.

"It is dangerous to generalize a whole theatre scene from just one festival," director László Bérczes warns at the start of our conversation. He points to POSzT, a national festival due in June, that boasts upwards of 15 shows, many of which he considers to be more mainstream than the BCDF lineup. "Please, try to understand," he advises in weary tones, "you have seen just a tiny fraction of Hungarian theatre, much of which was drawn from the fringe." Bérczes is the artistic manager of Bárka Theatre Budapest, a theatre that straddles the commercial and (what Americans would call) not-for-profit sectors and is therefore well attuned to the differences between conventional and independent shows. His own production of The Stonewatcher, by János Hay, about the Hungarian-Serbian minority, has won a number of awards in various national festivals. At the BCDF it was presented in collaboration with Szabadka (Subotica) People's Theatre, a Hungarian-Serbian company. "This year's programming," Bérczes goes on to point out, "didn't have anything from József Katona's theatre," one of the country's premier companies.

Certainly there is a danger in drawing conclusions about an arts scene, and for that matter a culture, from just one festival. Nevertheless, particular themes among the diverse Hungarian plays at the BCDF stood out to the alien eye - namely, a perceived lack of political theatre, an abundance of male-dominated work, an actual dearth of female directors and playwrights - and an ample amount of clapping [see sidebar].

SURPRISEPARTYĚS PÉTER KÁRPÁTI'S site-specific Gen-Y play that takes place inside a "secret apartment." (Authence members are instructed where to meet, then led to a third-floor walk-up.) Unfolding in a living room with ticket-holders seated in the round on futons and folding chairs, Surpriseparty chronicles the freak-out of Cr (described in program notes as a "dickhead") over his break-up with 9 and his new liaison with F. A love triangle ensues. Solipsistic conversations spill forth, beer is chugged, and the finale is, not so surprisingly, a spontaneous celebration for 6a with a meta-theatrical (but ultimately deadly) flourish that leaves authence members feeling more like hostages than partygoers. The nearly two-hour play feels decidedly more improvised than written, a testament to the strong actors who deftly climb over furniture (to grope and make out with each other) and execute difficult fight choreography on a dinner table while delivering lines of dialogue and asides so off-the-cuff that the simultaneous translator can barely keep pace - foreign guests are reduced to wondering what the young Hungarians are clutching their sides over. In one scene, resolves to avoid a local grocery store that carries his favorite brand of beer, since he fears awkward run-ins with. 's monologue becomes a tearful goodbye to his grocer, who gifts him with an extra six-pack. This conversation ultimately becomes far more wrenching than the actual break-up with F, which makes it all the more funny. Hardly political, Surpriseparty is an interpersonal romp in the style of Judd Apatow movies, where women serve as decoration to the male protagonists' "fuck-up" neuroses.

Decidedly different in tone was Lorenzaccio, perhaps the most subtle piece on the festival program. Presented by Maladype Theatre, Lorenzaccio is an adaptation of the 1834 play by Alfred de Musset. The original contains 60 scenes and more than 400 characters, but in director Sándor Zsótér's version, five actors relay a considerably abbreviated version of the tale of princely political scandal. A surprising amount of gender-play adds to challenges in comprehension. Fortunately, in Maria Ambrus and Man" Benedek's lush design, rich pinks and reds permeate the stage, creating a visual feast of oddly shaped gloves, balloons and asymmetrical costumes, making one wonder if the designers have been influenced by Richard Foreman spectacles.

One sensed that Lorenzaccio was in some way a commentary on today's (or yesterday's) poUtical situation in Hungary, but for foreign eyes it was difficult to discern just what that commentary was. BCDF director Mária Mayer-Szilágyi illuminated: ''Lorenzaccio is about a politician who cannot enact any change - just like what is happening now," she says. "In the play there is a revolution going on outside, externally, and an internal revolution. The main character knows he cannot change the situation or do any good. It's a very pessimistic view that 1 think is easier for Hungarians to see." Mayer-Szilágyi believes this kind of work makes Hungarian authences uncomfortable, contending these days they'd prefer to see "something funny."

So is contemporary Hungarian theatre all about escapism into dream realities? "In Hungary there is a tradition of reading between the lines, and ever since 1989 we've been asking, 'What to do?'" says MayerSzilágyi with a sigh that borders on a laugh. "The main problem in Hungarian theatre now is a nostalgia for the past. Theatre was more important for people [in '89] than it is now - it was our only chance for culture. With censorship, certain books and certain articles in newspapers weren't printed, so theatre was our only choice. Today we have returned to the idea of entertainment."

ENTERTAINMENT, ALBEIT SKEWED, seemed to be at the center of Phaidra Fitness, a retelling of the Greek tragedy set in the second floor of a gymnasium right across from the squash rooms. "I hadn't really taken 'fitness' in the tide to be so literal," one fesrivalgoer quipped as we squished into the hallway pre-performance. According to press materials, director István Tasnádi has been "constantly rewriting the Phaidra plot since 2001, allowing experiences of the past to get included in the current version." Unfortunately, Tasnádi's nine-year gestation period resulted in a bloated and bombastic baby. While some aspects of the show rang true, particularly the performances of Eszter Csákányi and Péter Scherer as Phaidra and Theseus, which were studied and nuanced, the choice of a gym as setting made the production feel arbitrary and gimmicky. Gym suits abounded and modern vernacular peppered the storyline, but these fun touches didn't serve to heighten or comment on the ancient story. It did provide opportunities for the two-member female chorus, which started off promisingly enough with a haunting incantation in Greek, to bounce on yoga balls, hit provocative poses and wear less and less of their already scant workout gear as the evening proceeded. Near the end of the performance when the two enter wet from showers for no apparent reason, it was not shocking, surprising or funny. If Tasnádi's point was to poke fun of Euripides or liven up the dated tale, he might have done so in a less crass, more rigorous manner. At least, this was the overwhelming consensus of the multi-national festival guests who shared their views with me.

That's not to say that crassness and machismo don't have their uses - and Viktor Bodo maximized both in a clever way. At a Saturday morning "rehearsal," everything seems business as usual. As guests arrive we encounter a somnambulant custodial woman who curses under her breath as we negotiate her freshly washed steps. Little do we know she is part of Bodó's tightly choreographed rehearsal-installation. Coffee is served, we are seated in MU Theatre, a translator thanks us for coming and four of Bodó's actors appear on stage. The sole woman in the mix wears a black tube top, denim miniskirt and kitten heels - judging from some fashions on the streets of Budapest, this seems like a perfectly natural combination to sport to an early morning rehearsal. The actors begin to deliver monologues, but director Bodo isn't liking it. "This is rubbish, start over!" he barks. The actress adjusts her tube top. The lights dim. More cursing. A cell phone rings and it doesn't take a Hungarian speaker to understand Bodó's admonishments. A dog scampers onstage interrupting the action. "Scratch that!" Bodo shouts and another scene begins. Now a pair of actors fake humping in a tent; a young male actor voraciously eats extralarge (and phallic) pickles and douses himself in pickle juice. A second tube top emerges. And then a third.

It dawns on me that I'm bearing witness to a joke. Bodo instructs the actresses to adjust their tube tops - they do so obligingly. The cleaning woman enters in a different outfit. A young man suggestively eats a cherry offa cake. Music from Raiders of the Lost Ark blasts, a strobe light throbs, actors repeatedly invoke "plumber syndrome" (the revealing of a bum crack) and finally a cacophonous dance sequence shimmies to thumping electro beats. Bodo stands up abruptly and announces that the rehearsal is over - it was all a big joke and thank you for attending. Some onlookers are not nearly as amused as others (I have a soft spot for Andy Kaufman- type shenanigans), but I wish I'd been aware of Bodó's reputation as an unrepentant misogynist in order to better enjoy watching his group, Szputnyik Shipping Company, attempt to deconstruct his rumored proclivities (while also perhaps unintentionally confirming them). I later learned that Bodó's primal behavior once prompted him to bite the ear of a cafeteria worker at a festival in Austria, but that Bodó's charm always wins out. (Evidently the cafeteria worker joked, "Viktor must return to the festival so that he can bite my other ear!")

ALSO BLENDING A PROFUSION OF profane with the sacred was Parallel Hour by Pintér Béla and Company. The work is an explosion of folk kitsch, songs set to the tunes of Depeche Mode, and raucous images (a particular favorite can only be described as a donkey-enema water fountain). Founded by Béla Pintér in 1998, the company operates independently but has steady rehearsal and performance space at the Szkéné, an independent repertory theatre at Budapest Technical University. As a local critic Tamas Koltai writes, "In Pinter's project the story is never interesting, since it usually is idealtypically [sic] neo-primitive, perfectly conforming to realities and preferences of the present age. Ditto the dialogues. Pintér and company write the continuous story of the change of regime, dead seriously copying tawdry Hungary. They're not always good, but always authentic."

If Parallel Hour seemed delightfully indiscernible, the same troupe's Children of Demon proved easier to follow. A cruel mother (played brilliantly by Pinter himself) disapproves of her daughter's choice of boyfriend. Pinter stalks about the kabuki-style stage making pronouncements that rile all within earshot and ruin any chance of the daughter's happiness.

With the help of translator Linda Dobos, I asked Pinter where the idea for Demon sprouted from. "We read the book Toxic Parents and in it there is a list of what kind of bad mothers exist. One of the types is 'demon,'" he said with a roll of the eye. "In Japan, a demon always appears in performances, so we thought that was enough for a performance to be put together." Despite the profanity of Pinter's work, he claims the Bible as a huge influence. "Every intelligent person, in my opinion, needs to have an understanding about how we exist," says Pinter, who was raised Catholic.

When asked about the prevalence of macho culture, at least as demonstrated on stage during the festival, Pinter's face darkens. "In Central and Eastern Europe, yes, there is traditionally a more conservative approach with respect to men and women. I think the interesting thing in a performance is to show how we can make these macho guys funny and make an authence laugh by ridiculing the machismo." The fact that the mother in Children of Demon was literally a hysterical demon, portrayed with invective and verve by a man, didn't seem to faze Pinter - he saw it as a reinforcement of his attempt to subvert traditional gender roles.

Director Bérczes, who was once married to one of Hungary's leading feminists, offered other insights on the topic of gender. "Hungary has a traditionally paternalistic structure. I'm used to it. We're surprised that the foreign visitors to the festival have reacted this way." Bérczes pointed to male dominance in the political scene to explain the absence of female directors and playwrights, but offered a hopeful sentiment: "It's changing, but very slowly." Akos Nemeth, one of Hungary's star playwrights, a softspoken man in his forties, also blanched at the question of where the female directors and playwrights were: "I can name a bunch in other countries, but not in Hungary. Maybe we men are too aggressive?"

Festival director Mayer-Szilágyi, who herself has a degree in dramaturgy, states, "It is difficult to comment on the gender issue in the performing arts without bumping into gross stereotyping and generalizations." The lone female director at the BCDF, Gianina Carbunariu, who presented 20/20, is Romanian. Nevertheless, Mayer-Szilágyi asserts women directors in Hungary have the same opportunités and education as their male counterparts. "No one is oppressing them," contends Mayer-Szilágyi. "Some are just not good enough. Some lose their motivation after a while. Some continue with rather mediocre productions." Politicians, taxi drivers, mechanics and chefs are male-dominated jobs in Hungary, notes Mayer-Szilágyi, while dramaturgy, advertising, sales and law are fields saturated by women. "Traditions and clichés are still strong," she goes on. "Perhaps there'll be a breakthrough sooner or later. Or perhaps this society will never get to the point of a widespread discussion about gender-related questions."

As for where young playwrights go for training, Mayer-Szilágyi joked, "In Hungary we don't teach the playwrights... because the playwrights don't want to be taught!" There are a few play writing courses emerging but, as with feminism, change is slow.

In the meantime, perhaps the main mission of theatre in Hungary is to provide escapism - and maybe that's okay. For Bérczes it is. "It's not about fixing social problems," the director declares. "Theatre is about love, death and human problems. Emotion is more important than aesthetics. Just aesthetics," he says, pausing dramatically and wrinkling his nose, "is just horrible." One wonders if such a lament were even possible 20 years ago.

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