02. 15. 2007. 11:14

Cheap life, pricey death

István Tasnádi: Hungarian Zombie (theatre review)

A middle-aged husband unable to provide for his wife and mother-in-law after the local meat-packing plant closed down decides to commit suicide. An infotainment show host arrives to sign a contract whereby he will do it live on television.

Like, Bodó's The Great Sganarelle and Co., István Tasnádi's Finito (Magyar Zombi) [Hungarian Zombie] exists at the furthest reaches of adaptation; and yet, their strategies are completely different. Certainly, both theatre artists owe their inspiration to the original material, but that is where all comparison ends. For them, discovering and appreciating the original text was only the first step in the process of creation.

Although Viktor Bodó's work begins with the cast singing about Budapest, his play could be set in any urban center, and not even a contemporary time. The costumes recall the 60s, and his Don Juan is too mythic to be considered contemporary. By way of contrast, Hungarian Zombie is a satire tailored to modern-day Hungary. István Tasnádi took his inspiration from a 1930's Russian play entitled The Suicide. In fact, the author's blithe admission that he stole the idea from Nikolai Robertovich Erdman, is printed on each and every playbill. Nevertheless, he has arrived at a narrative that is fresh and topical for today's audience.

The setting is the fictitious Hungarian village of Nagyábránd (Grand Illusion). Our everyman protagonist is Gáspár Blondin, a middle-aged husband unable to provide for his wife and mother-in-law after the local meat-packing plant closed down. He lives, although he has no will to live. One night, when he is channel-surfing, he comes across two women singing, one blond and one brunette. His sudden appreciation of beauty is an epiphany for him, only he is suddenly brought back to the sordidness of reality by a washing powder commercial. None of this is staged. Gáspár relates the experience in a passionate monologue to the mayor of Nagyábránd after he has threatened his wife that he will commit suicide.

Director Pál Mácsai has taken this element of the story, along with the author's instruction to begin with baroque music, to fashion an ingenious frame for the story – a literal frame! The stage is surrounded by a fake baroque proscenium, made of flat paper and hung with what appears to be an old and patched curtain. Two singers in blond and brunette wigs appear from either side of the proscenium arch, singing in a baroque style to the accompaniment of two violins. (The music is live in this performance, and what a difference it makes!) These women could be interpreted as Blondin's angels, but they perform a multitude of tasks during the show.

The curtain rises on an outhouse in the middle of an otherwise bare set. The flats are in the same abstract baroque style. Mrs. Blondin is alone onstage, looking like a Raphaelite angel in her formless white nightgown. She is trying to talk to her husband, who has sought refuge in the outhouse. The juxtaposition alone is visually startling, but the playwright has another trick up his sleeve. The dialogue is all in rhyming couplets.

The twist, of course, comes when everyone who should be encouraging Mr. Blondin not to commit suicide seems to have more to gain from his death. The mayor wants a media circus to attract attention to the small village. The police captain/psychologist is willing to purchase his corpse for two and a half million Hungarian forints for some obscure reason involving a Belgian businessman and Chechian hitmen. A female reporter is interested in launching her career, whereas a member of the New Narrative Association wants to promote the cause of new literature. (He presents Blondin with two volumes of poetry to be published posthumously in his name, as well as a writing prize that he claims Blondin won the previous year.) Finally, an aging pop diva is hoping to stir up interest in her new album, simply a remix of her old releases, by claiming that Blondin is commiting suicide over unrequited love for her.

All of these people's schemes and plans are dwarfed, however, by the arrival of Pál, host of the Pál Show, an infotainment special. He wants to sign a contract whereby Blondin will commit suicide live on television. Life, it seems, is cheap, but death is a pricey commodity.

The local villagers provide a fine counterpoint to the vain outsiders who descend upon their village (Blondin's mother-in-law turns her character's rhyming recipe for vegetable soup into an ode to joy), and Kriszta Bíró gives an unlikely and hilarious (at times poignant) performance as the aging pop diva Niki The Tiger. As she performs a pop number which the baroque duo actually sings, she shows off her main two talents: lip-synching and titillation. For oversized ego, however, Pál (played by Csaba Debreczeny) certainly takes the prize. He is callous and condescending to everyone around him, and so he makes an especially good target for humour – especially when he must kowtow to Blondin, the "imitation peasant". As in all good satires, there is a wild-card character, this being the amoral psychologist with a gift for philosophising, Dr. Buda Juhos (brilliantly played by László Széles). His speech about the the phallic significance of the outhouse, the throne of household patriarchs, is a comic masterstroke.

Much of the humor comes from the characters' inability to communicate. Blondin's last supper, for instance, is a symphony of noncommunication. The mayor draws a comparison to Christ's Last Supper, but this only seems to underscore how dissimilar the two events are. Nevertheless, the most rewarding satirical targets are the modern-day phenomena, instantly recognizable to a contemporary audience. What makes Blondin's midlife crisis all the more unbearable is his lack of preparation. Under Communism, he was guaranteed a job. Now, he is unemployed, unemployable, and unable to fulfill his traditional role as man-of-the-house, baffled by the images of the outside world that come to him filtered through the television. On the other side of the equation are the stars who live off the media. Niki is capable of practically anything to maintain her waning stardom. (After all, what can she do once her career is over? "Shall I go work as a cashier at Tesco?" she asks rhetorically.) The Pál Show mines the rich comic territory of the reality-TV phenomenon. The actors have a fine time overacting in character for the camera and Pál himself raps the introduction to his show. 

There is more than one plot twist in store – all surprising, all perfectly inevitable. However, for the ultimate twist, István Tasnádi has revived that convention as old as theatre itself, the deus ex machina. Director and theatre manager Pál Mácsai arrives onstage to deliver the happy ending. Ironically, his ending makes few of the characters happy. This, it seems, is the real Pál Show. On this stage, at least, theatre is still supreme.

Patrick Mullowney

on the website of the Örkény Theatre (only in Hungarian)

Tags: István Tasnádi: Hungarian Zombie (theatre review)