03. 28. 2007. 11:14

Chance meetings on a dramaturge's dissecting table

Three performances by the Béla Pintér Company

Writer-director-actor Béla Pintér occupies a unique role as impressario in Budapest's alternative theatre scene. His signature blend of music and movement, traditional and modern theatre techniques makes each of his one-act shows an unpredictable and memorable experience.

Pintér's company, which operates out of the Szkéné Theatre, an intimate setting that seats 100-120 spectators, continues to draw devoted fans. Improvisation contributes much to his work's creativity and topicality. He described his process thus in the April 2005 issue of Színház (Theatre) magazine, "When I meet with the actors on a new production for the very first time, I bring eight to ten pages... I usually say what the show will be about, where it comes from, where it's going, and what new challenges I consider important in it. While I don't believe it's any easier to bring a finished work to the stage, this is where my talent lies."
Peasant Opera
Béla Pintér's Parasztopera (Peasant Opera) is truly unlike anything else on the theatre scene. The orchestra occupies one side of the stage. It consists of three violins, a harpsichord and a bass, and all five musicians are costumed like peasant women in uniform black skirts and shawls. The story, concerning the affairs of common people in a depressed farming village, is full of lurid events (including love between step-siblings, extramarital affairs, accidental inbreeding and murder), not to mention credibility-defying coincidences. Still more tellingly, the musical sources vary from Baroque opera to folk music and pop songs. As an opera parody in a studio space venue, it both intelligently sends up opera conventions and enlivens them.
Stage movement includes stylised peasant chores and folk dance, some of which is naturalistically motivated (the dances at the wedding) and some of which is character-driven (when the bridegroom breaks into a boot-slapping dance to express his gleeful relief). There is also a fair amount of physical comedy that showcases the timing and dexterity of the cast.
Nevertheless, the joke that keeps giving is the incongruity of the Hungarian text set to Baroque recitatives. Hearing the characters pronounce convoluted job titles and obscenities in Händel-like cadences is endlessly amusing. There is even a moment of communal introspection. One of the characters intones, "Hungarians, see what has become of our once great nation," and the music comes to a halt as all the characters bow their heads and cry.
If judged impartially, opera is an absurd medium. The stories are implausible and the technical demands on the performers are great. Opera fans learn to suspend their disbelief quite willingly. Hence, it is refreshing to see an "opera" production which plays on the inherent absurdity of the traditional art form, incorporating modern theatre techniques.
In the end, there is no catharsis. The sins of the past generation are irredeemable. It is up to the younger generation (indeed, the audience) to find their own solutions, their own answers to the past. As with much of the nation's recent turbulent history, true resolution seems hardly possible.
Lonely Star
Árva csillag (Lonely Star) uses many of the techniques in Peasant Opera, but the style is completely different. Here, the genre of science-fiction is the object of parody. Sprinkling in a handful of obscure Hungarian allusions, the company has concocted a sort of fusion performance with the specific tastes of their audience in mind.
After a short computer-animation sequence symbolizing a UFO's crash landing, the play opens with a mundane business deal, a land transaction. Mihály Pók (a middle-aged man whose name means Mike Spider) and Andrea (his much younger wife, who wants to open a beauty parlour) are about to sign a contract, purchasing land in a little-known town somewhere in Hungary.
The conflict kicks off with the arrival of Mike's younger brother Oscar, played by an actress. With fake facial hair and an assuredly macho manner, the only characteristics that seem to indicate the actress's sex are her long flowing hair and high voice, which she takes no trouble to disguise. Such gender bending would be superfluous, were it not to prepare us for the aliens yet to come. The aliens disguise themselves as Roma women, but they are neither masculine nor feminine (even though one is referred to as a princess). They represent a distinctly different species in which our sexual distinctions may well be meaningless.
From here on, the story operates on two levels: the everyday and the supernatural. Oscar wants to dispute the land deal, and he claims that he had slept with Mike's wife. The mystical or otherwordly conflict ensues when a spacecraft crashlands in Mike's soon-to-be backyard. The aliens confide in Mike that they need high-grade alcohol to fuel their ship. That way they can return to their planet, Lonely Star, where Light, the sad exiled princess will regain her throne.
Subsequently, Mike Spider (or "Spiderman", as the princess's bodyguard calls him) is cast as the unlikely hero, because he is the only one who understands what is going on. Although Andrea and Oscar join Mike and the "gypsy women" on their trip to Austria (en route to Scotland for quality scotch), the others never realize that they are in a spaceship. They never catch on to the strangers' alien identities. It is Mike alone who knows what is at stake, and he will be called upon to "save the day" by the end of the play.
The company has a few more surprises up their sleeves. Indeed, the one act of entertainment has no shortage of twists and surprises. All in all, it is a distinctly light piece of entertainment, a witty and carefree tall tale that lovers of science-fiction will especially appreciate.
In the same April 2005 issue of Színház (Theatre) magazine, Béla Pintér described his work as "a mix of secular theatre and wicked humour". His piece Korcsula (Korcula), which takes its name from an island off Croatia, certainly merits this description, notwithstanding its smattering of religious references and its puzzling, ambiguous, even moody atmosphere.
The play is centred around a crime. As the audience enters the small studio space, there is already the outline of a dead body delineated in tape on the backdrop. Still, the spectators have no way of guessing what is to come. The landlady of the beachside bed-and-breakfast is serenading the guests with a Balkan song, just part of the ongoing "karaoke party" that runs through the performance. We see a group of swimsuit-clad vacationers sunbathing.
In addition to the landlady Igrana and her husband Zlatko (a Hungarian of Vojvodina, having grown up in Serbia after the Treaty of Trianon revised Hungary's borders), there is a couple (András and Kincso) with an adolescent, mentally retarded son (Mackó); the husband's boss (Géza), who is vacationing with his secretary (Miriam); and a mysterious woman named Gabi. Gabi has a large blue left eye painted on a patch over her real left eye. She wants to run away with Zlatko, who is tired of his insatiable wife Igrana's constant demands for sex. This is not the only secret love affair. Géza, who at first seems merely over-solicitous of his employee's health and happiness, declares his love for András midway through the play. András is unwilling to requite Géza's love until he learns he has only two more months to live. Mackó (played by director Béla Pintér, unrecognisable again as the retarded son) is the innocent party in this melange of unhappiness and deception. He has a habit of stripping when happy, and his father strikes him repeatedly for this. He is also seduced by the landlady, who later complains to her husband, "He gave me what you never could."
In contrast to Béla Pintér's previously discussed works, the musicians in Korcula are far more integrated into the plot. Indeed, the orchestra surrounds the acting area. Characters accompany each other's songs and two musicians even receive character names.
Adding to the general misunderstanding and confusion is the fact that the characters speak in five different languages – Hungarian, Croatian, German, English and Italian – with translations into Hungarian projected onto a cloud hanging over the set. A final number is even sung in Latin. Miso, at the synthesizer, plays a Bach melody throughout the piece, which later gives way to the popular rock adaptation by Procol Harum, "Whiter Shade of Pale".
Due to its puzzling nature, Korcula invites multiple viewings – or, at the very least, a spirited discussion with companions over drinks after the performance. It is further proof of the Béla Pintér Company's inexhaustible resource of creativity and its seemingly infinite capacity to startle and entertain adventurous theatregoers.
Patrick Mullowney

Tags: Three performances by the Béla Pintér Company