The Katona József Theatre production of ‘Gypsies’ at The Kennedy Center by Jennifer Perry

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As part of a festival celebrating The Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is hosting a Hungarian theatre’s production of Gypsies. In its season full of touring productions of well-known musicals and plays, this selection is most welcome as it affords Washingtonian audiences the opportunity to ‘step out of their comfort zones’ a bit. Those who are willing to take a chance on this play, will not only be exposed to one of Hungary’s most respected theatre companies, the Katona József Theatre, but also be educated about the plight of the Roma (Gypsy) people in Eastern Europe (specifically Hungary) while being entertained.

Director Gábor Máté has made the interesting decision to combine two versions of this play into one. The first part of the production uses the 1931 script penned by Jenó Tersánszky while the latter portion leverages Krisztián Grecsó’s more contemporary script. This device is useful to explore how the treatment of Gypsies, and their place in Hungarian society, has evolved over time while at the same time, not changing very much at all due to underlying and deeply rooted socio-cultural attitudes that the majority and the minority groups have about one another in this part of the world. Certainly, these attitudes can and do span generations. To this end, the story about an inter-ethnic love triangle in a small Hungarian village (depicted in the first half of the play) is a good contrast to the ethnically-based violence and oppression that is explored in the latter half. There are certainly strong ideas about inter-ethnic relations presented in the first half which manifest more fully in the second half. The end result is a cohesive play.

To the theatre company’s credit, this exploration of Gypsy culture and experience is not an academic one. The stories of the men and women who experience love, loss, and question their identities and place in society are brought to life by a more than capable cast of 17 taking on Roma and non-Roma characters. In the beginning of the play, we see the playful and vivacious side of these people as they explore romantic relationships through interesting and flavorful music and dance and intense and emotional dialogue. In the latter half, we see more of the oppression that they endure and the resulting impact of unspeakable violence at both the individual and group level.

Although the cast is uniformly strong and committed, some of the acting choices at crucial moments in the play are broad and over-the-top, particularly as the interplay between man and woman, and parent and child is exposed front and center. It’s possible that this is a directorial choice, but it can be counterproductive. For example, after a Gypsy man (Mr. Harkocsány, played by László Szacsvay) is murdered, his wife and his daughters grieve in an almost comical way. The choice to present death and its aftermath in this way may hinder, or possibly prevent, audiences from truly understanding the depth of Gypsy oppression and the consequences of violence. Instead of being overcome with empathy, there’s a sizeable chance that audience members will laugh a bit uncomfortably (as they did the night I saw the show).

This dilemma is evidenced in a scene where the grieving family, after stealing Mr. Harkocsány’s body, assists the dead man in drinking as Hungarian police personnel and a political representative of the Gypsy people (Zoltán Bezerédi), serving as a conduit between the two communities, figure out what happened (or what they should say happened) and what should be done to address the death. It’s possible that this scene is meant to explore how the Gypsy people deal with death, but the ‘laugh moments’ may sacrifice actual cultural learning.

That said, some of these post-death scenes are still effective. The interplay between the widow (a very effective Ági Szirtes) and the politician is, perhaps the most ‘real’ and thought-provoking of the play. Mrs. Harkocsány, still grieving from her very recent loss, expresses great annoyance at the politician for turning her personal loss into a political moment. Yet, shortly after the politician expounds on social injustices and maltreatment of the Gypsy people as a whole, she profusely thanks the man for advocating for a resolution to her personal tragedy. This brief moment is illuminating in that we can see that ethnicity is not the only force which influences human behavior and accompanying divisions or tensions. Certainly, intra-group differences do exist even when that group shares a common identity, experience of oppression, and even ideas of what constitutes an enemy. It’s not simply a majority vs. minority equation in Hungarian society. It’s much more complex. This play does an appreciable job of conveying that notion.

Beyond dialogue and basic plot, the production is a mixed bag. I certainly commend the Kennedy Center for bringing a foreign production, presented completely in Hungarian, to our city. That being said, the use of English supertitles is, in this case, ineffective. I can understand the need to have an English translation of the dialogue to make it a more enjoyable and productive theatrical experience for the audience. However, this production uses the small screens on stage right and stage left to display the translations. As a result of this decision, it is likely difficult for a portion of the audience to properly see both the action and the translated dialogue at the same time. Depending on one’s location in the theatre, one needed to look left (or right) to read the words on the screen while still focusing on the front and center of the stage to see the action and appreciate the stunning visual components of the production. I can’t speak for the entire audience on the night I saw the show, but I found this constant need to shift focus distracting as I sat in the left side of the front orchestra. It would be much more audience friendly to display the translation above the stage (where, incidentally, there is a large black canvas) so that the audience members can simultaneously focus their attention on what’s happening on the stage.

The cast of The Katona József Theatre production of 'Gypsies.' Photo by Daniel Domolky.

Despite my misgivings about the supertitles, the other production values were first rate. The music, complemented by Attila Pokorny’s sound design and Péter Takátsy’s choreography, provides not only entertainment, but also gives insight into these important facets of Gypsy culture and life. Certainly, the sights and sounds brought me back to my time in Southern Spain where I often encountered bands of Gypsies on the streets of Andalucian cities. Likewise, Anni Fuzér’s costumes for the Roma characters are stunningly brilliant and colorful and are nicely contrasted with the more neutral costumes worn by the Hungarians. Most compelling, however, is Balázs Cziegler’s set design. The colorful costumes ‘pop’ when contrasted against his neutral and minimalistic white backdrop. When red colors are added, as an unfortunate violent shooting and explosion (resulting from a Molotov Cocktail), unfolds, the end result is visually stunning. The use of a turntable (a la Les Miserables) is a nice touch as time passes and situations change.

I’d recommend this piece for Kennedy Center audiences that want to be challenged and are open to traditional notions of the Gypsies, as portrayed in the popular media, being tested. It’s an ‘out of the box’ piece to be sure. Different is not always better, but in this case, there is a great deal of payoff.

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.

The Katona József Theatre production of Gypsies plays at the Kennedy Center- 2700 F St, NW in Washington, DC – through Saturday evening, March 17, 2012.  For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

Featured Picture: From left, Tamas Keresztes, Adam Kovacs, Zoltan Rajkai, Peter Takatsy and Lehel Kovacs star in Katona Jozsef Theatre’s Gypsies. Photo by Daniel Domolky.