The theater season is off to a slow start in September 2018, but there are still plenty of options to choose from. Here are my tips arranged by theater or venue. Meanwhile, I will be checking out the promising new premieres!
Átrium Színház (Atrium Theater)
This former cinema retains its classy, nostalgic interior, and there is a great buffet with tasty cakes, coffee, and drinks. Still, expect steeper than usual prices (for the tickets, too). The stage was never remodeled. We are gazing at where the movie screen used to be, so the sight-lines are a little wonky. Clever directors are able to work around this, though.
Titkaink [Our Secrets] This bomb devised by Béla Pintér exploded in 2014, and it has left audiences shaken ever since. As an intelligent exposé of Communist-era informers, the dance house movement, and pedophilia, it is simply unbeaten at straining the viewers’ nerves to their breaking point. Plus brilliant gender-bending performances by Eszter Csakányi and Angéla Stefanovics. Highly recommended! Sept. 9, 10
Edward II Marlowe’s classic drama about the martyred gay king receives a splendid production thanks to director Róbert Alföldi and great performances by Ernő Fekete (of the Katona József Company, here playing the title role) and Márton Patkós (as his young lover). A thoughtful consideration of sexuality and politics. Highly recommended! Sept. 15
A soha vissza nem terő [The Never to Return] Belonging to that category of Béla Pintér works portraying hapless characters on a doomed mission, this play tackles themes of unrequited love, betrayal, and cultural clashes. The language and staging is more explicit than usual, but despite energetic performances and eye-candy effects, this outing seems slighter than his other efforts. Best for confirmed Pintérites. Sept. 22, 23
Centrál Színház (Central Theater)
Delila [Delilah] The star-studded cast delivers a pitch-perfect rendition of this rarely seen piece by comic master Ferenc Molnár, but the material, in which a clever wife saves her husband from a greedy young temptress, is quite dated and corny. Recommended for those who want a trip back in theatre time! Sept. 7, 8, 19
Katona József Színház (József Katona Theater)
Portugál On his way to Portugal, soul-seeking Bence shows up in the no-where Hungarian village of Irgács and turns the status quo upside down. Zoltán Egressy’s now classic play has spawned a 1999 film, and this production itself has run since 1998. It features legendary performances by Imre Csuja, Ági Szirtes, and Zoltán Varga, although Tamás Keresztes and Réka Pelsőczy seem rather mature to be playing the romantic leads. Sept. 1, 2, 9, 16
A két Korea újraeyesítése [Reunion of the Two Koreas] This love-it-or-loathe-it offering from the celebrated Katona József Theatre showcases its excellent company of actors in Joël Pommerat’s roughly 20 unrelated and underdeveloped scenes about rotten relationships. Some consider it a triumph of good acting over poor material. In my opinion, however, the vomitous script cannot be redeemed. Sept. 4, 28
A bajnok [The Champion] Whether or not you are aware of the sex scandal upon which it was based, this Béla Pintér work is a fascinating and effective adaptation of Puccini’s one-act opera Il tabarro, with the political elite of a small Hungarian town standing in for the dock workers of the original. A daring and mostly stellar cast sings its way through the updated libretto about politics, sexuality, and parental responsibility. Sept. 8, 17, 18
Bihari This biographical drama about an intellectual blackmailed into becoming a spy under the Communist regime on account of his homosexuality is not well executed. There are too many pointless conversations and go-nowhere scenes. Despite a committed cast, it is difficult to understand the exact repercussions of the anti-hero’s actions. By the end, he is reduced to a quivering mass of self-loathing. “I’m a shit,” he says. Agreed. (basement space) Sept. 8
Ürgék [Blokes] Mostly made up of Hungarian men’s stories from 1956 to the present, this production (assembled by Réka Pelsőczy and Tamara Török) offers little insight. The older generation is represented by László Szacsvay, János Bán, and Dénes Ujlaki (the latter’s delivery becoming somewhat predictable by the end). The younger generation, which feels less comfortable in the masculine roles they have inherited, is embodied by Bence Tasnédi and Zsolt Dér. Still, the tales are mostly superficial and materialistic. Male roles, in general, are never questioned or challenged. Rather, the older generation offers a lesson in calmly accepting the status quo. Anna Pálmai and Hanna Pálos are on hand to add decoration and contrast. After all, there are no men without women. (studio space) Sept. 12, 13, 26, 27
Ascher Tamás Háromszéken [Tamás Ascher in Háromszék] Béla Pintér's new piece at the Katona works on a variety of levels. In part, it is a riposte to those who criticized his handling of public individuals' private lives in A bajnok. Now he returns with a parody of himself, director Tamás Ascher, actor Zoltán Bezerédi, and the theater's manager Gábor Máté. It is a brilliant evening of comedy and drama with a great cast and splendid music by Csaba Ökrös, but with so many themes – meta-theater, Chekhov adaptations (Three Sisters and, if you are paying attention, The Seagull), backstage drama, folk song paraphrases, alcoholism, sexual harassment, reproductive rights, male irresponsibility, irredentism, and urban snobbism – there is far too much to unpack adequately. Plus, foreigners will have a hard time appreciating the in-jokes and the song lyrics. Sept. 19, 20, 29, 30
Széljegy [Marginal Note] Prolific playwright György Spiró's new piece about sharks and marks on the real estate market plays like a verbose one-act, staged on a cool lozenge-shaped set with seating on both sides and delivered at top speed by the excellent cast. The dialogue is sparkling, but one hour is still a long time to watch a naive victim (Andrea Fullajtár) and her overbearing mother (Kati Takács) walk unsuspectingly into an obvious trap. Also, we do not receive much insight into the villains' motivations, neither those of the low-life swindler (Barna Bányai-Kelemen) nor the lawyer (Judit Rezes) who is capable of cruelly betraying her former friend. (studio space) Sept. 25, 29, 30
Magyar Színház (Hungarian Theater)
In September, this venue hosts a production from the Radnóti Theater…
III. Richárd [Richard III] For the first half, famed Romanian director Andrei Şerban, who is keen on turning up the house lights and implicating the audience in the story, shows us why he is a master of modern direction. He makes the most of the smallest details, his color scheme is a bold contrast of black and yellow, and he practically scores his dialogue with sound effects, cued to the actors’ lines and stage business. It can be a challenging medium for the performers, however, who must somehow imbue these figures with life. Róbert Alföldi (who is plagued by more tics and insecurities than most Richards) succeeds, as does András Pál (as Buckingham). József Kelemen as Hastings has stunning blue eyes, but relies too much on tired bits. Zsolt László is arresting as the dethroned Queen Margaret, Zoltán Schneider is hilarious as a spokesman riffing his way through the extended coronation scene, and Adél Kováts flies under the radar as Elizabeth to delivers a concluding speech that is haunting in its restraint. Still, the play suffers when we lose sight of the human drama, which is often drowned out by distracting light and sound effects in the bombastic second act. Sept. 25
MU Színház (MU Theater)
Grace My favorite performance by the Hodworks dance company, Grace is a seemingly random series of dance numbers and sketches (some delivered in English). Never boring, often puzzling, and frequently provocative. Be prepared for sexual content and plenty of glitter. Sept. 26
Örkény István Theatre (István Örkény Theater)
A hattyú [The Swan] The set suggests decadence; the costumes some unintelligible tradition which the characters feel compelled to follow or subvert. While Csaba Polgár’s production makes some good dramaturgical choices, all the pregnant pauses and added musical numbers run the risk of inflating Ferenc Molnár’s soap bubble of a humanist comedy too far, and the final tableau puts the bitter in bittersweet. All things considered, though, this is a fine introduction to Molnár’s comic genius. The cast is uniformly great. Sept. 15
Azt meséld el, Pista [Tell That One, Stevie] For his one-man-show, Pál Mácsai embodies the theatre’s namesake, István Örkény, and simply recounts tales from the talented author’s life. No, it is not a three-act drama, but it delivers precisely what it promises. Sept. 16
Az üvegbúra [The Bell Jar] Director Kristóf Widder brings Sylvia Plath’s cult novel to the stage intelligently on a hot set by Eszter Kálmán and with effective piano music by Árpád Kákonyi. (The sounds of the telephone are palpably threatening.) Bold movement theater-inspired staging brightens up what is essentially a 90-minute monodrama featuring two assistants. Emőke Zsigmond commits fully to her role as Esther Greenwood, and Tünde Kókai slips in and out of multiple female characters with understated grace. Béla Dóra’s characterizations need more variety. I found him too comic as Esther’s fiancé Buddy, but that may simply be the director’s interpretation. Also not quite measuring up are the lighting effects by Richárd Kehi, which are only intermittently inspired. Young dramaturge Sára Gábor should also pay attention that if Esther’s loss of virginity is too positive (and not comic-grotesque, as it was in the novel), it sends the message that lack of “normal” hetero sex leads to lesbianism, madness, and suicide. Overall, a good show! (studio space) Sept. 16, 21, 30
Anyám tyúkja (1.) [Mother’s Hen, Part 1] Not recommended for beginning language students, but if you are studying Hungarian poetry, there is no better introduction than the Örkény actors’ interpretations of these compulsory poems, staged as though delivered by serious and passionate Communist-era schoolteachers who gather outside a traditional peasant house. It is especially moving for those who grew up with these poems, who feel as if they are hearing them for the first time. As in several other Örkény productions, the incidental music provided by Árpád Kákonyi is icing on the cake. Sept. 21
Pesti Színház (Pesti Theater)
A testőr [The Guardsman] Enikó Eszenyi and András Stohl inject plenty of energy and star power into this comic gem by Ferenc Molnár, and while the arc of some scenes may get lost, they pack in the laughs. They play is modernized, particularly with regard to the costumes and the acting couple’s spacious flat, although some of the references remain dated. András Kern proves to be a great straight man, feeding the co-stars their cue lines like a pro. The only disappointment is Erzsébet Kútvölgyi, who fails to be funny as the obnoxious mother-in-law. Overall, a good show. Sept. 1, 29
Toldi This production must be a godsend for Hungarian students, who are required to read János Arany’s epic heroic poem. Here Gábor Csőre recounts it all in a very appealing and entertaining fashion. Despite his abundant charm, however, the language remains unyieldingly old-fashioned and poetic – hence, very difficult to understand. Sept. 30
Rózsavölgyi Szalon (Rose Valley Salon)
Audience members, mostly older or upwardly-mobile, happily throw down 5,000 forints per ticket and then even more on pricey drinks and snacks for the patina of class in this venue on the upper floor of the Rózsavölgyi Music Store. This is buffet theatre, and not exactly edgy. Rather, the vibe is intimate and safe.
Rosmersholm [Rosmer Manor] This staging of Ibsen’s masterpiece of political reform, stern morality, and wild romanticism is strictly by the book. Béla Fesztbaum and Annamária Láng get to showcase their unique chemistry (last brilliantly on display as kissing cousins in the Comedy Theater’s production of August: Osage County from 2009) with solid support from József Gabronka, Vince Zrinyi-Gál, and Andor Lukáts. (I’ve missed you, Andor!) Still, Béla seems overstretched as both star and director. The production lacks a visual character, and a model of the house (tossed in just before the last act) is sadly un-integrated. Alas, Erzsébet Kútvölgyi badly fumbles the genre-bending ending, which has the potential of transforming the melodrama into an eerie ghost story. Sept. 17
Szkéné Színház (Szkéné Theater)
Journey into the central building of Budapest's Technical University through its main entrance, located on the Buda side of the Danube bank, then take the elevator on the right side of the foyer up to the second floor. There you will find the ticket desk, coat check, buffet, and oftentimes plenty of pleasant young people willing to assist you.
Szívszakadtig [Till Heartbreak] What begins as a romantic melodrama about heart transplants takes a dive into political button-pushing with the sudden appearance of a half-black, illegitimate, retarded young man capable of astonishing violence if he ever receives the love that he craves. Writer Béla Pintér is out to provoke our worst fears about immigrants, but the result is a rancid brew. Best to skip this one. Sept. 1
Árva csillag [Orphan Star] This decidedly lighter piece by Béla Pintér blends the tropes of science-fiction and musical comedy. Profound it is not, but certain jokes and visual gags stay lodged in the viewer’s mind for long afterwards. Sept. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Caligula helytartója [Caligula’s Deputy] Transylvanian playwright János Székely’s drama (set in Ancient Roman times, but with parallels to despotic Communist rule) is a modern classic. It receives a fine production here with thoughtful (and by no means boring) direction by Rémusz Szikszai and a fine turn by Gábor Nagypál in the title role. Sept. 8
I. Erzsébet [Elizabeth I] Modern English playwright Paul Foster revisits the history books and gives us a burlesque-style romp, providing some delightful off-the-wall sketches, but also some troubling stereotypes and a heavy-handed conclusion (warning us of the evils and potential resurgence of Fascism). Although he was acclaimed for his lead role in drag, I found Tamás Fodor’s performance overrated. Far more entertaining were Péter Bercsényi (as Mary Queen of Scots) and Gergő Kaszás (as Catherine de Medici). Sept. 16
Parasztopera [Peasant Opera] Béla Pintér’s classic theatrical confection blends folk dancing and music with baroque recitatives to serve up an opera plot set in the isolated Hungarian countryside complete with murder, infidelity, and incest. It all culminates with a fateful retribution which inspires both pity and fear. With this production, Pintér perfected the comic dissonance of characters singing Hungaricums like “The chief railway officer is drunk as a pig!” or improbabilities like “I was attending a Lutheran conference in Minnesota” to classical-sounding airs. The show is imaginative and brilliant. A must-see! Sept. 25, 26
Trafó House of Contemporary Arts
Gyevuska [Devushka] Another unique theatrical confection by Béla Pintér, this drama blends orchestral music, sung dialogue, and the visual world of black-and-white film to tell the story of the ill-fated Hungarian bicycle corps, deployed in Russia during World War Two. Forbidden love, betrayal, and drug use are all involved. The result is not flawless, but the sonic / visual / emotional experience is definitely memorable. Sept. 17, 18
Vígszínház (Comedy Theater)
A Pál utcai fiúk [The Paul Street Boys] It is hard to get tickets for the 2016 musical adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s classic children’s novel, which is a lighthearted take on a two rival gangs and their battle for possession of a splendid lot, and no wonder! The cast is spirited, the direction is sharp, and the music is catchy without being disturbingly thin (which is the case for most modern musicals). The climactic stand-off is staged very symbolically before the tear-jerking finish: the martyrdom of Ernest Nemecsek for what proves to be a meaningless cause. Depressing allegory? Perhaps, but integral to the Hungarian psyche. Sept. 1, 2, 8, 9, 15
Máglya [The Pyre] The best part of this stage adaptation of György Dragomán’s work is Olaf Altmann’s simple set, which is reminiscent of a snowy field, a children’s sandbox, and a topographical map – all at first sight. Yet, the direction by Armin Petras is clever without being brilliant. The appealing young actresses (Janka Kopek and Patricia Puzsa) are good without being great. The story of an orphaned girl adopted by her estranged grandmother in Transylvania, following the revolution in 1989, culminates in a scene of epic drama, but it is without catharsis. To borrow the title of a Béla Pintér play, the overall effect is dazzling mediocre. (studio space) Sept. 2, 30
Játék a kastélyban [The Play’s the Thing] This classic meta-theatre exercise by Ferenc Molnár is a gem, but by all means, avoid the current production in which the uneven cast tends to fumble the comedy. The leading role of Turai, the mastermind playwright, can be a tour de force for an actor, but Miklós Benedek mostly mumbles his way through it. Sept. 16
Hamlet For the first time in its long history, Vígszínház hosts the Danish prince and does so on a wondrous set that lifts, descends, rotates, lights up, shows videos, etc. Still, the dramaturgy gets a little wonky, starting off with a dues ex machine (the ghost’s appearance), but then not following through with it. (I could imagine Fortinbras appearing at the end in the same fashion, but certainly not Laertes.) Attila Vidnyánszky, Jr., brings astounding energy and physicality to his battle with this unwieldy text, but he seems to be abusing his vocal chords for the last two hours. In the second half, there is a purifying pool of water, where Hamlet and Gertrude (Enikő Börcsök) share an incestuous kiss, and where King Claudius (Géza D. Hegedűs) and Ophelia (Nóra Réti) take separate nude dips (the former flamboyantly, the latter bashfully). All in all, the message is difficult to discern. Who is this Hamlet who impersonates his mother in drag before the whole court, and who has much more chemistry with the Player King (Károly Hajduk) than with Ophelia? He begins to resemble Helmut Berger’s character from the Visconti film The Damned. On the plus side, Ákos Orosz gives us an emotionally credible Laertes, and the climactic swordfight is impressive. Sept. 23, 30
See you at the theater!
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