New Yorkers tend to get twitchy in the summer. We long for distant climes, or at least climes that don't involve steaming, sticky asphalt. But each year, Lincoln Center Festival offers us a powerful incentive to stay home (and tourists an excellent reason to visit). A theatregoer would be hard pressed to get to even half of the countries represented in this year's Europe-focused fête, and summertime airports are almost as terrifying as the summertime subway. So this July, keep comfortably at home and cool your heated brow with chilled imports from Eastern Europe — think of it as a breeze out of the Carpathians.
Darting among the Festival's bookend entries — Ariane Mnouchkine returns with her ensemble Théâtre du Soleil and the Piccolo Teatro makes a long-overdue visit from Milan — are three less well-known, but no less impressive visitors. From Poland, Krystian Lupa brings Kalkwerk (The Limeworks), his dramatization of Thomas Bernhard's novel, which has been the director's signature work for a decade and a half. And Hungary fields two productions: The Katona József Theatre brings Chekhov's Ivanov, directed by Tamás Ascher, and Béla Pintér offers his naughty Peasant Opera as a zippy chaser. Amazingly, given their international reputations, all three are making New York debuts.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Iron Curtain. Even while it was still shut, a bulk of the world's theatrical innovation was hidden behind it. Every contact with the East stimulated the theatrical community for decades — experiments by Anatoly Vasiliev in Moscow and Tadeusz Kantor in Poland reinvigorated the form every time there was any sort of cultural exchange. So now that all is openness and democracy, we should be reeling from sharing innovations with our new neighbors, right? Well, only in part. Few young Polish directors have had major local productions like Krzysztof Warlikowski has, but there is still a "missing generation," the masters who taught the current crop of tyros and yet haven't made a splash here.
Few theatre-makers anywhere enjoy a reputation like Lupa's. At the festival for this year's European Theatre Prize, a UNESCO-underwritten award for the region's best artists, ranks of devoted admirers turned out to celebrate his past work and present greatness. (Mnouchkine, the award's first recipient, famously used her 1987 acceptance speech to beg Europe to embrace its walled-away eastern members. Mission accomplished!) Yet despite Olympian status abroad, Lupa has gone largely ignored in the English-speaking world. Why? One reason is that Lupa, who began as a visual artist, makes scrupulously spare, sculptural stage-pictures that don't resemble the grandiose spectacles that have typified European imports. His mission, too, is dauntingly spiritual — he aims at making the intuited, visible. Some of his pieces can stretch on for eight or more hours (although Kalkwerk runs a tidy three), and they are designed as metaphysical wormholes that — he hopes — gravitationally alter the course of the spectator's life. He has proved particularly adept at adapting books to the stage, and his stage version of Bernhard's novel, with its psychologically complex portrait of a man and his wheelchair-bound wife engaged in baroque auditory experiments, creates a hypnotic pull that borders on vertigo.
The Hungarian director Tamás Ascher also specializes in swamping his audiences in emotion: When his exquisitely despairing Three Sisters played in London, audiences roared to their feet for a five-minute ovation. Here he and Budapest's Katona József Theatre turn to Anton Chekhov's Ivanov for another comic sonata on melancholy themes. The melody, though, is all about home. The director sets the action in 1970s Hungary in order to draw connections between Ivanov's mid-life pessimism and the torpor that gripped the country while under socialism's jackboot. But these are not your typical, Chekhovian eggshell-treading bourgeoisie. Ivanov is Chekhov's first, and least polished work, and it careens wildly from farce to tragedy. Ascher and his long-standing company honor the play's strangeness by flinging themselves into it with daunting physicality and a nearly hectic hilarity. They caper at the edge of the grave.
The Hungarian critic Andrea Tompa describes this sense of crisis as the post-communist response to "the idea of 'the end of history'…. The sense of passing time is abolished, and historical time can be restarted." With the passing of the dominant communist system, every underlying principle has changed. But if time has started over, arts in Europe must answer a new question. It is no longer, "How can we resist?" but, "Who will we be?" As more and more countries gather under the blanket of European Union membership, differentiation between cultures has become of paramount concern.
Tellingly, Béla Pintér doesn't look to an Austrian (Bernhard) or Russian (Chekhov) to work out his wryly nationalistic ideas — he looks to himself. He wrote, directed and plays in the insouciant Peasant Opera, which may account for the folk-musical's deliriously self-reflective nature. The story is simple: Gossip at a wedding, mixed with shots of flaming absinthe, leads to an avalanche of melodramatic revelations. Emphasizing the piece's intimacy, the set is just rushes and a wagon, and the band crams onto the stage with the players. Jokes are broad and pokes at Magyar bull-headedness abound. America comes in for a few jabs as well — let's just say that once the cowboy with the giant phallus shows up, you know hell is about to cut loose.
Taken together, these three works make a triptych of modern, post-socialist Eastern Europe. They also, with their three approaches — pitch-dark psychological expressionism, energetic neo-realism and postmodern folk-opera — are exploring what comes after the collapse of a central, governing idea. Lupa's piece about an artist who is really a madman can be read as a political allegory about the price of self-delusion; the Hungarians use wry humor to dissect the post–Soviet malaise. This is the year in which empires, financial and otherwise, are falling into the sea. These three shows give us a hint of what our own theatrical beaches may look like a few years hence.
(This piece appears in the Playbill for the 2009 Lincoln Center Festival.)