Angels in Budapest

Hungary's premier stage offers a striking revival of Tony Kushner's groundbreaking play

'Angels in America' in Hungary

THEATER On two old VHS tapes in the collection of San Francisco's Museum of Performance and Design you can watch the Eureka Theater's 1991 world premiere of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, a response to the AIDS epidemic and the reactionary politics of the Reagan era. It's a low-fi document, with poor sound quality, but it's completely riveting. Something more than the play's words and images, as striking as they are, cling to that worn magnetic tape: there's the electric excitement of a work of art cracking open its historical moment.

A similar frisson passed through the main auditorium of the National Theatre of Budapest last week, where I joined a group of international guests and a local audience for Romanian-born American director Andrei Serban's production of Angels in America, starring as Prior Walter the National's celebrated yet politically embattled artistic director, Robert Alföldi, an award-winning international director in his own right and one of the country's most famous actors.

The production was the capstone of an impressive weeklong festival featuring some of the best work in contemporary Hungarian independent and state-sponsored repertory theater. Presented by the Hungarian Critics Association, in international partnership with Philip Arnoult's Center for International Theatre Development and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Hungarian Showcase (March 2–9) encompassed a revelatory range of styles and talents. It also highlighted a theater actively responding to a rising tide of reactionary politics — reminiscent (especially in its overt anti-Semitism, homophobia, and anti-Roma racism) of the ultra-nationalism of the 1930s — even as the arts in general and theater in particular reel under the economic strain of the conservative government's neoliberal agenda and attempted curbs on free expression.

The National's production of Angels is just one instance of theater's critical role in public dialogue in Hungary today, but in many ways it was the most poignant instance encountered. That's in large part owed to Alföldi's powerhouse performance in the lead — a muscular, charismatic performance, extremely witty and wrenching by turns — and simultaneously to his history as artistic director over the last five years. Since Alföldi's government appointment in 2008, something extraordinary has been underway at the country's premier stage. Previously, Budapest's National Theatre had been better known for its kitschy postmodern edifice (opened in 2002 and made to resemble a rather gaudy ship aimed vaguely at the nearby Danube) than for the unexceptional productions on display inside. Under Alföldi's brilliant and maverick leadership, the theater has come to be widely regarded as one of the best — if not the best — in the country, and attendance has grown dramatically, including among younger audiences.

Alföldi's attempts to make the theater a place of inclusion and dialogue, meanwhile, as well as his lively and provocative interpretations of classic Hungarian nationalist texts like The Tragedy of Man and John the Valliant, have earned the disfavor of rightwing politicians — including members of the ultra nationalist Jobbik party, who were not above demonstrating noisily outside the theater to demand his ouster, and slandering Alföldi on the floor of the Parliament. Alföldi, popular and unprecedentedly successful in the post, has managed to stay on for his five-year term, but the government denied his application for a second term in favor of a well-known director with conservative political opinions.

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