11. 21. 2006. 09:37

Enchanted reality

Ernő Szép: Purple Acacia; Bridegroom

One of the most famous love stories of Hungarian theatre, and a play about bohemian Budapest before World War I. - Purple Acacia and Bridegroom by Ernő Szép.

There is a certainly tale-like quality to the works of Ernő Szép (1884–1953; a playwright whose name translates Ernest Beautiful). Take for instance the appearance of the “beautiful, old blind beggar” in the fourth act of Lila ákác (Purple Acacia):

“BEAUTIFUL, OLD BLIND BEGGAR enters from the right with careful steps, playing a violin, he stops close to the bench. Dear kind ladies and gentlemen. I humbly beg of you. I humbly kiss your hands. Please donate if possible. I humbly implore you.”

Staging such an appearance as written presents a real challenge for the director (as well as the actor). Just how would a blind man walk and play the violin at the same time? Secondly, how are we to imagine an old blind beggar who also happens to be beautiful? This obstacle inevitably arises when staging Erno Szép’s works – how to balance the fantastic elements in an otherwise realistic, though often overwhelmingly romantic, setting.

Lila ákác
presents several other challenges to producers. This “history of a love” in five acts was written with detailed sets and special effects (rose-tinted fog, for instance) in mind. Near omnipresent music (sometimes played onstage, but more often than not wafting in from the wings) and oodles of flowers appear in nearly every scene. The story is simplicity itself, but the treatment is episodic. We are treated to five important scenes in the lives of these lovers, but these scenes unfold before our eyes leisurely, with only passing attention to plot. In this play, mood is all – distilling a certain youthful spirit, along with the sights, sounds, and flavors of pre-World War I Budapest. Add to this the sparkling dialogue, which is far more chaotic than the polished sentences of Ferenc Molnár, Hungary’s best known playwright. Lila ákác is practically a lexicon of contemporary city slang.

Of course, time is the precious luxury we lack. The Pesti Theatre has packaged this production as a brisk two-part comedy-drama. With the intermission (between acts three and four), it clocks in at just under two hours. We do not have time to see Pali Csacsinszky (our hero, whose surname, which means "donkey", was poet Endre Ady’s self-mocking nickname) pace the turf outside the Gerbeaud Confectionary, singing a French air; whereupon he is discovered by Margit “Manci” Tóth (our heroine), who observes him unnoticed for a time and then bursts out laughing. As the curtain rises on this show, we see Pali sitting on a bench, patiently waiting for his older, high-bred inamorata. Manci is already well onstage, already laughing, and badly concealing her mirth behind a paperback.

One cannot necessarily fault director Péter Forgács for this. After all, perhaps a modern (impatient) audience would find all the extraneous stage business tiresome. Maybe the actors felt uncomfortable or embarrassed stranded onstage with all these private moments to perform. As for the go-nowhere wordplay, it has been summarily deleted. Perhaps another nod to our modern sensibilities, the action has been sexed-up somewhat. The physical comedy is more ribald than the tasteful 1920’s script managed to indicate. Two Budapest dandies share a spirited kiss; even Manci kisses her confidante Hédi, another “tango dancer” at the casino – both instances serving to tease us with a homoerotic subtext. In addition, while Szép was undoubtedly poking fun at the contemporary men about town (giving them names that roughly translate "Minus" and "Little Monkey"), here a brawl is staged as a series of light slaps. This seems to highlight a perceived effeminacy in the pre-World War I milieu.

Although his worldview is a romanticized one, Ernő Szép does not entirely shy away from the era’s seamier side. The second act takes us to the casino where it is revealed that Manci works as a dancing girl. Everyone in the play assumes she is a prostitute, but what sort of prostitute is it that swears (in the fourth act) that she has never been with a man? Lali, a supporting player in this act he hints, ever so broadly, at the anti-Semitism of the time. He cavalierly orders, “Bring me a Jewish child to beat!” When it turns out that both the flower seller and the waiter are Jewish, Lali showers the waiter with kisses. Would that all bigots were so kind!

In addition to presenting this tame view of big-city decadence, the second act also helps move the story along. Manci, it seems, is in love with Pali. He all but ignores her, managing in the meantime to make a rendezvous with the noblewoman of his dreams, Mrs. Bizonyos (Mrs. Certain). Manci, meanwhile, makes a date with Mr. Bizonyos, albeit one with explicit pecuniary remuneration.

The third act is the most clearly constructed of all, built as it is around a brilliant comic situation. Pali and Mrs. B take the cogwheel train to the top of Sváb Hill, lounging in the grass in luxurious solitude. Yet, there is trouble in paradise; Mrs. B soon tires of Pali’s endless romantic prattle. She wants to dally, while he thirsts for love, an ideal that continues to elude him. Their idyll is further spoiled by the unexpected appearance of Mr. B and Manci. All of the characters seem to appreciate the humor of the situation except for Pali. The married couple, who are sporting hedonists, and the escort girl have a good laugh at his expense. Mr. and Mrs. B return to town in the husband’s automobile, leaving Pali to mourn his fleeting youth and wallow in disillusionment. At the end of this scene, Manci expresses (in a speech well known to all young aspiring Hungarian actresses) her unhappiness and solitude, finally convincing Pali to pay attention to her – even to be her friend.

The Pesti Theatre’s set design for this production is simple and elegant, sidestepping the extravagant demands of the script. Hanging down from the flyspace is a wide swath of grassy green carpet studded with tiny artificial flowers. There is also an ornate bench that figures in every scene, as well as a piano set against the back wall where a pianist can provide incidental music at his leisure. This arrangement is used quite ingeniously in the third act, when Pali and Mrs. B climb along the grassy turf, poised in mid-air on concealed footrests. With the lighting, we are treated to a bird’s-eye-view of the two lovers lolling in the grass.

Sadly, though, in the second half, the production seems to run out of ideas. The two main characters do not change their costumes, which makes it seem like everything takes place over two days, and this is impossible. While Péter Telekes and Ildikó Tornyi give talented performances – as Pali and Manci, respectively – the characters lack dimension; they do not seem to evolve over the course of the play. The fourth act, where Manci seduces Pali into taking her home with him (gratis, of course), can only have occurred after they have established a firm rapport, something only a long friendship can accomplish. Nevertheless, the scene seems terribly rushed.

The fifth act takes another large leap into the future. Manci is leaving unexpectedly and unaccountably for a dancing tour of Russia with her confidante Hédi. The whole trip has been arranged by Hédi’s artistic manager father Angelusz (who, it is revealed somewhat gratuitously at the end of the play, used to be a famous female impersonator). The tour has been kept a secret from Pali, who discovers only minutes too late that his opportunity for true love has eluded him. Manci fares no better at the end. In addition to leaving behind the man she loves, she is compromising her principles as well. “I know one cannot be good,” she states, “I believe many people must be bad. Why should I be the exception?”

Turning back to the beautiful, old blind beggar: it is a good illustration of the weakness in director Péter Forgács’s approach. His beggar is blind and old, but he is not beautiful; he does not play the violin. He shuffles in unconvincingly with a white cane, making his way across the stage. He does not address the lovers. Pali stops him, unsolicited, and gives him money. Manci gives him flowers. “Beautiful, no?” “Gorgeous,” they say. Well, what was so gorgeous about it? The fact that they gave him money? The fact that they were compassionate? By playing the scene realistically, they have missed the point entirely. The blind beggar is not realistic; he is symbolic, allegorical. If you would like a lighthearted interpretation, the blind old violinist is the God of Love. He visited Pali and Manci one night in the park, and they tendered their offerings.

Vőlegény (Bridegroom) is much more comedic, and accordingly, the characters have a much more pragmatic view of love. The story concerns a money-strapped middle-class family that is prepared to marry off their oldest daughter Kornélia (referred to by the male equivalent of her name, Kornél), but how are they to make a fortuitous match? The father, mother, and four children hear that Rudi, a dentist and the eponymous eligible bachelor, is on his way. This gives them precious little time to transform their run-down, cluttered flat into a trap to catch a bridegroom. (For a similar comic set-up in Hungarian theatre literature, compare the first act of Gergely Csiky’s play Proletariats, premiered 1880.)

In the second act, the father, who is a little demented, makes a dowry settlement with Rudi, despite the fact that the family has no money. Kornélia visits her intended personally to reveal the deception, only to discover that Rudi himself has no money. He was posing as an eligible bachelor, hoping a rich marriage would solve his financial woes.

The Új Színház (New Theatre) has a tendency to overproduce plays, and when the curtain rose on what appeared to be a landfill, one could easily predict the worst. Still, this unexpected beginning provides the key to their unique take on the play. What clutters the stage is the detritus of the past several decades, the rubble that remains from the time separating our world and the world of the characters. We hear a static-filled radio broadcast, and the stage begins to rotate. Slowly the family flat comes into view as the music becomes progressively older and the radio signal clearer. We have traveled back into Ernő Szép’s world.

Far from being a simple stage trick, this device returns in a pivotal moment in the central second act. Here, we have the long scene between Kornélia and Rudi. As performed by Lia Pokorny and Zsolt Huszár and directed by Péter Rudolf, this scene is a tour de force. They have managed to bring to the stage two complicated, flawed people locked in a confusing net of conflicts. What precisely Rudi wants from Kornélia or vice versa is impossible to summarize in a sentence. Indeed, if this is a scene of seduction (and it does end with the couple making love), it is often difficult to determine just who is seducing whom. When the two begin dancing, the stage rotates again, only this time a full 360 degrees. They dance past the family living room, where the other characters sit and wave out to the audience. Indeed, the couple seems to dance through time. Kornélia and Rudi transcend the boundaries of realism. They take on mythic, legendary proportions.

This element of fairy-tale enchantment occurs again in the third act. Kornélia has abandoned hopes of marrying Rudi. Instead, she intends to help out her family by turning professional and becoming a high-class courtesan. For a novice, she shows remarkable success. Although she has not sold her body yet, she has won the attentions of a Sugar Daddy (literally, a Sweet Baby in the original) who intends to whisk her off to Venice. She soon overcomes her family’s moral objections by distributing expensive gifts. Rudi shows up just minutes before Kornélia’s departure. He wants to marry her, to save her – to make an honest woman of her, so to speak. The Sugar Daddy, in a silent role, appears in the doorway three times. He is impeccably, almost fantastically dressed. In dream-like fashion, he slides three packages, presumable luxury gifts, into the flat to tempt Kornélia. By this time, however, Rudi has prevailed. Locked in his embrace, Kornélia does not notice her would-be patron, and we hear the Sugar Daddy drive away.

Several elements come together in this production. First and foremost, the cast manages to create a convincing ensemble. Ildikó Bánsági brings great humor to her role as Mother, and Károly Eperjes, who is prone to overacting, is given free rein to ham it up as Father. Even György Vass, as the put-upon brother Zoli, manages to make an impression. The cast is aided and abetted by the production's seamless technical elements. A spontaneously collapsing wardrobe garners the biggest laugh of the evening. Still, special credit should also go to Hilda Hársing as dramaturg for bringing to light so many unexpected surprises in the text. When the whole family seems to support Kornélia’s new life as a prostitute, who is it that allows Rudi access to the house? In this staging, it appears to be Mariska, the quiet middle child. When Kornélia ultimately chooses love over material well-being, Éva Botos as Mariska gives the audience a beatific smile of triumph – thus illuminating, brilliantly, this mostly overlooked character.

At the end of the play, director Péter Rudolf treats us to a living tableau. The characters pose for a group photo, each of them rhythmically repeating a catchphrase or a characteristic gesture. It is as if the same few seconds were being repeating endlessly, cued to the sound of a record that is stuck. The play ends when the picture is taken, completing the motif of deterioration and immortality. The picture may end up in a landfill, like the rubbish dump we saw at the beginning of the show – a disintegrating memento, a forgotten moment. On the other hand, the memory of these people could live on, preserved like the figures in a timeless tale or a legendary romance. Magically, the Új Színház’s production gives these characters new life.

Patrick Mullowney

Tags: Ernő Szép