My two favorite plays from the past two seasons were by female theatre artists directing their own work. What makes these shows successful?
A casual overview of Hungarian theatre is enough to establish that this is a male-dominated field. Repertory theatres in general have more male contract players, especially if they regularly stage classic works. Directors are overwhelmingly male (notable exceptions being Kriszta Székely and actresses-turned-directors like Enikő Eszenyi and Réka Pelsőczy), as are most of the playwrights.
That is why it is such a pleasure for me to announce that, of all the original plays I have seen in the past two seasons, my favorite two were written by women who also directed their own work: Pentheszileia Program by Réka Kincses and Sunflower by Andrea Pass. But what makes these pieces so successful?
Pentheszileia (named after the famed Amazon from Greek mythology) grabs our attention from the very start, at a clinic where the heroine is undergoing her nth abortion. When the anesthesia wears off, she quickly proceeds to hit on the young attending doctor. What sort of protagonist is this? What type of young woman behaves this way? He reveals to her that during the procedure, she repeated the words, “Forgive me.” Disturbed by this news, she turns to her psychologist, to find out who she was asking for forgiveness. Thus, the psychological yarn begins to unfold.
Fittingly for a play of this sort, the scenes flow in a seemingly stream-of-conscious manner. Some have criticized Penthesileia for being more of a screenplay than a theatre piece; yet, they cannot deny that the plot is language-driven. Also, there is a compelling theatricality in how the production, with its limited means, accomplishes the quick changes and metamorphoses.
Most obviously, there is effective doubling of actors. Kati Lázár plays the protagonist’s grandmother and great-grandmother. Even the protagonist steps into the role of her grandmother at a young age. This is staged clearly (through the use of a telling prop or costume piece), so the audience is not confused. Gábor Hever plays both the heroine’s father and her amoral psychologist who is sexually involved with his patient. This suggests that she is attracted to him as a father figure. In one bravura scene, her tryst with the passionate, though married poet (Daniél Nagy) is nearly spoiled by the nagging voice of her mother, played by Zsuzsa Hullán, who climbs over, around, and under the bed – perfectly embodying not just the character, but her daughter’s neuroses.
Last but not least, much of the play’s success is due to the assured performance of Csenge Szilágyi in the main role. She knows the character through and through. Like a fearless tour guide, she leads us along the dark corridors of the protagonist’s mind, instantly evoking a vast array of times, places, and emotions.
On account of its specific details (namely, the heroine’s Armenian origins), the piece seems highly autobiographical. Let us hope, then, that Réka Kincses can produce other successful plays, either by mining more interesting material from her life, or by experimenting in the future with imaginary characters.
Sunflower by Andrea Pass is a different specimen altogether. Strongly naturalistic and minimally staged, it also relies on clever use of space and subtle acting to transport us to the myriad of settings in this small-town Hungarian world. In this case, however, the author shows clear empathy and understanding for all of her characters.
Those who criticize the piece (again) for being a screenplay ignore two salient facts. First, most of our new material for the stage is filmic, because younger generations of storytellers tend to imagine in the cinematic medium. (Some older authors like Zavada and Esterházy tend to write prose pieces for the stage.) In short, most authors lack a theatre imagination. Second, these critics fail to see how dialogue drives Sunflower. What Andrea Pass accomplishes, in fact, would make most dramatists green with envy. The practically mundane conversations at the beginning roll by without exciting much attention until we realize, gradually, that she has painted an entire world with these exchanges. We soon find that we know this setting and her characters uncomfortably well.
As the play takes shape, it becomes clear that its focus is the mother-daughter relationship between Anikó and Janka (in the author’s words, her two heroines). Nowadays, it has become trendy to diagnose parents as narcissists, but that is exactly the dynamic at work. Janka cannot comprehend her mother’s mental difficulties and is often forced to be the responsible adult in their interactions. Eventually, she turns away from her mother, seeking out better sources for the love she craves. After Anikó’s first big breakdown, the wife and mother is pressured to reform her life, but she receives little to no support. Janka comes to realize her role her in mother’s deterioration. This recognition is a painful step in the process of growing up.
Ms. Pass is well served by her actors who thoroughly embody their characters and convey their relationships clearly. They add color to the scenes that Ms. Pass has sketched with a few deft strokes. Adult actors play the children, but thankfully without overdoing it. If I have one small criticism, it is that the main actors could be bolder in bringing out their characters’ negative traits. Kata Pető could make Anikó more unpleasant. After all, she is an unstable woman who is very difficult to live with. Károly Hajduk comes off as too perfect as the patient, understanding husband. He, too, has his own agenda and a very sneaky habit of hiding his selfish urges behind good intentions – not to mention his threats of sending Anikó back to the institution, which are far from understanding and quite cruel. Finally, Dóra Sztarenki could be more headstrong as Janka. This is a clever youngster who already knows how to fib in order to manipulate adults. The fact that she is a little bitch when her mother returns from the mental health facility does not make her less sympathetic; it makes her human, and it is key to understanding the play.
Andrea Pass worked for a period as production assistant to Béla Pintér, and she clearly picked up some of his directing techniques, such as the use of live music. Still, these methods are employed here for a different aim. Hers is not a theatre of shocking plots twists, but rather slow recognition. The shocking aspect is how deeply we come to know these characters, to the point where we feel capable of reading their minds. Thus, a scene of innocuous chit-chat near the end (between the father and the schoolteacher) swells to Chekhovian proportions with the volumes of unspoken material behind the lines.
All in all, these plays bode well for the future, as does the emergence of other female dramatists like Eszter Anna Szilágyi (whose Nyíregyhaza Street won the Dramaturge Guild’s award for best new play) and Rozi Székely (whose new play Calvary Housing Estate has premiered at Trafó). We need these fresh voices on the Hungarian stage, which has been dominated by men’s stories far too long.
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