1. Uncle Vanya in Transylvania (Vanya Bacsi)
I got to check out an excellent Uncle Vanya at the Hungarian State Theater in Cluj, directed by Andre Serban. The play was performed in Hungarian with Romanian subtitles, but I read along with an English translation.
It was hilarious. Thank god there was no pointless slapstick—just absurd yet appropriate character details. For example: in Act 2, the drunk Doctor, on a long and wild bender with his friend Vanya, wanders into the Professor’s living room carrying a 10-foot long plank of heavy wood. He looks around with a baffled expression, and asks “Where are the ladies?” Genius.
Incredible performances: sweaty, committed, over-the top in the best possible way. But what will stay with me are certain perfect, indelible images. During Act 1, the audience was seated on the stage, while the actors climbed over seats and along precarious railings. This struck me as a little silly until the end of the act when, pair by pair, all the characters tango up the theater’s center aisle and disappear. Vanya is left sitting alone in the center of the aisle. Slowly, slowly, the theater’s massive chandelier dims to a reddish amber and descends, until it is hovering just inches above Vanya’s immobile, bald head: a ridiculously oversized cloud of despair.
During Act 2 (the drunkathon), the audience moves onstage, where the action takes place along the three side walls of the stage. Much of the action takes place (dangerously, precariously) on the steep, rickety metal steps that ascend to the theater’s roof. To the audience’s left, there’s a vast expanse of dirt with a dollhouse in the center. At one point Vanya wanders drunkenly out of the house into this field. It’s drizzling on this part of the stage. He drops to his knees in the mud, makes a mess of himself, and lies down helplessly beside the dollhouse.
2. Krétakör’s The Ice (A jég)
Another incredible performance, this one by Budapest’s hippest alternative theater troupe Krétakör. They constructed a giant, naturalistic, two-story house that took up well over half of Budapest's Trafo theater space. The audience entered through the set, filing past the actors who sat around a big round table in the “kitchen.” The actors casually greeted us as we entered—I felt a little like I was visiting a friend’s house during a family gathering.
The plot is a bit too weird to sum up here—set in Moscow, it follows several different people from different levels of society who are inducted into a strange, brutal cult obsessed with meteor ice. It’s fascinating, but complicated. (There were no subtitles, so Eszter did simultaneous translation for me—bless her).
The production was no-holds-barred, anything-goes, balls-to-the-wall physical. Actors scaled the set like a jungle gym, hurled books at eachother, launched into pratfalls, and simulated some very convincing violence. Metal lipsyncing in a bathtub full of water. Lots of dancing. Live music. A man humping a computer screen that displays an image of Stalin. Now I can hear some of you telling yourselves, “What’s she talking about? This sounds awful!” And yet I swear to you, it was amazing.
I directed a production a few years back that had a lot of sexual content, but no nudity. Well, The Ice made me feel like such a baby. I’ve never seen so much nudity and simulated sex onstage. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it tasteful—tasteful wasn’t the point—it was always appropriate, weirdly appropriate, and in service of the story. It was not aggressive or “in your face,” not angry or confrontational, but simply human. The characters are all lost, confused, upset. Their sexual encounters are funny, or tragic or both; usually awkward, drunken, or a little nauseating, or embarrassing. Nothing really “sexy” about it.
Krétakör’s bravery blew me away. But it wasn’t just the nudity, or the athleticism, or the raw emotion that got me. Their show also took incredible narrative risks. I was surprised at every turn. Seeing the realistic set, I assumed we were going to see a naturalistic play. Wrong. There were naturalistic moments, sure. But at other times, two people sitting in front of a fan, waving a spatula like a windshield wiper, were suddenly in a car. The actors broke the fourth wall regularly, transitioned seamlessly from a multi-generational family dinner into a sleazy nightclub without so much as a lighting change. It reminded me a little of Gatz in that way; black box “open theater” in a naturalistic set.
And all that was just in the first act. After intermission, the audience was seated on the two-story set, facing the former audience bleachers, which had been transformed into a forest of miniature Christmas trees. The act was one long monologue, split between different actors: an explanation of the origins of the cult. Those actors not speaking created a soundscape that underscored the monologue. At first the actors voiced the bird and insects of a forest. Then their sounds morphed gradually into into the clattering of a train heading towards a concentration camp, the clack of typewriters in a German office, and later on, the low choral hum of an encounter with a mysterious meteor. It was the most “choral” work I’ve seen in the theater.
I hear that Krétakör will be coming to the Lincoln Center Festival this summer; get your tickets now, I say. Spend whatever it takes. I know I plan on seeing them as much as possible while here.
5 months ago