The Katona Jozsef Theatre‘s production of Gypsies isn’t to be confused with Gypsy, the 70’s Broadway hit, but there may have been a few people in the audience expecting a rowdy musical with a brassy female lead. The opening number certainly supports that idea. There’s a little singing, (albeit without instruments), a little dancing, and even a cute little cookie cutter romantic triangle.
Think West Side Story. Dani (Tamas Kereszetes), a handsome young gypsy violinist with a switchblade, is pallin’ around with Miss (Hanna Palos), the voluptuous Hungarian bartender. The blubbering Mr. Maggot (Zoltan Rajkai), a tax clerk, having finished off a quart or so of plum brandy, wonders why Miss is going after a lousy Gypsie. And then the Gypsie father of Szidke (Anna Palmai) shambles in, wondering why Dani isn’t courting his daughter. Dani is a Gypsie. Gypsies aren’t good enough for him?
And so we settle down for a celebration of East-Euro-folklore: an idyllic love triangle, complete with exuberant singing about unrequited love between shots of plum brandy. But director Gabor Mate and the Katona Jozsef Theatre, have something different in mind.
This is really a production with two scripts. The original Gypsies, written in 1931 by the venerable Hungarian playwright Jeno Tersanszany (1888-1969), is a celebration of small town life. Just as we’re getting settled into that rhythm, Mate and a 36 year-old writer Krisztan Gresco, brutally fast forward us into 21st century Hungary.
Contemporary Hungary — at least the one presented here — is an unlikely set piece for a musical comedy. A brief update: In Hungary, as in many Eastern European countries, the mix of an economic crisis, resurgent nationalism, and simmering ethnic antagonisms has turned everyday political and cultural discourse into a Molotov Cocktail. The battle lines may be familiar to some of us: big city intellectuals vs. the small towns, ‘real’ Hungarians vs. the foreign-born. The object of political rage, unsurprisingly, is the rootless, self-contained culture of Gypsies (Roma).
So much for the musical comedy. By the second half, Gypsies transforms into an update from the trenches, in a battle that is very much in progress. In today’s Hungary, an alliance of the ultra-nationalist the more moderate right wing party has created a political rhetoric with ominous implications for all those considered ‘outsiders.’ Hungary’s prized theatrical culture isn’t exempt from that battle by any means. With the vigor of certain American Senators on this side of the Atlantic, Hungarian political leaders are making sure taxpayers’ dollars aren’t going to anti-Hungarian productions.
The Molotov Cocktail in this production is literal. In the midst of a intra-family, intra-village tribal war, a bottle gets hurled through a window of a squabbling Gypsy family. The building goes up in flames. A gypsy patriarch fleeing the burning home is shot. A dysfunctional investigation of the hate crime slowly lurches into gear.
But don’t let that fuel another misconception. This isn’t an evening of cultural moralizing. And there’s no Atticus Finch. In fact, it’s hard to say that Katona Jozsef Theatre is taking sides at all. The small town Hungarians wind up looking fairly unsavory: beet red from drinking, incoherent, and corrupt. But the Gypsies fare little better. They’re pickpockets, tribal, illiterate, and suspicious.
It’s the chaotic whirligig of this production itself that seems to be the saving grace of this town. The two and a half hour play goes by quickly. Not because of any nail biting suspense, but because there’s an attractive choreography to life in this provincial mudhole. The constant bickering is strangely galvanizing, as the townspeople (Gypsies and Hungarians) plunge themselves into furious, choreographed squabbles. They fight one another in the bars, in bed, and over the corpses of their beloved.
A reporter comes to town (Eszter Kiss), and for a moment, we feel that she’s the voice of righteousness. But her relationship with the town quickly turns into a squabble between a Cosmopolitan from Budapest, and the locals. The detective (Erno Fekete) arrives, and for a moment we think he’s the next Jack Bauer. But he can hardly see beyond his mop of hair, as he fumbles from one ‘interrogation’ to the next. Any attempt to move the plot, and the situation, forward, descends into chaos.
For this fine company, the chaos is creative. Director Gabor Mate and choreographer Peter Takatsy keep the production in a state of constant movement without sacrificing dramatic intensity. Movement-trained Hungarian actors keep it physical in a way that could well be a learning experience for any actor in the audience. And for your average DC observer, myself included, this is a reminder that, in a world where political discourse itself has become a Molotov cocktail, theatre is a place where we can talk — and bicker — without blowing each other up.
Performed in Hungarian with English supertitles
Two performances remain at The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theatre, Friday March 16, 2012 at 7:30pm and Saturday Evening, March 17 at 7:30pm
By Jeno J. Tersanszky and Krisztian Grecso
Produced by Katona Jozsef Theatre , presented by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by John Barry
Running time: 2 1/2 hours with 1 intermission