Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Roundup: Two Plays

1. Uncle Vanya in Transylvania (Vanya Bacsi)

I got to check out an excellent Uncle Vanya at the Hungarian State Theater in Cluj, directed by Andre Serban. The play was performed in Hungarian with Romanian subtitles, but I read along with an English translation.

It was hilarious. Thank god there was no pointless slapstick—just absurd yet appropriate character details. For example: in Act 2, the drunk Doctor, on a long and wild bender with his friend Vanya, wanders into the Professor’s living room carrying a 10-foot long plank of heavy wood. He looks around with a baffled expression, and asks “Where are the ladies?” Genius.

Incredible performances: sweaty, committed, over-the top in the best possible way. But what will stay with me are certain perfect, indelible images. During Act 1, the audience was seated on the stage, while the actors climbed over seats and along precarious railings. This struck me as a little silly until the end of the act when, pair by pair, all the characters tango up the theater’s center aisle and disappear. Vanya is left sitting alone in the center of the aisle. Slowly, slowly, the theater’s massive chandelier dims to a reddish amber and descends, until it is hovering just inches above Vanya’s immobile, bald head: a ridiculously oversized cloud of despair.

During Act 2 (the drunkathon), the audience moves onstage, where the action takes place along the three side walls of the stage. Much of the action takes place (dangerously, precariously) on the steep, rickety metal steps that ascend to the theater’s roof. To the audience’s left, there’s a vast expanse of dirt with a dollhouse in the center. At one point Vanya wanders drunkenly out of the house into this field. It’s drizzling on this part of the stage. He drops to his knees in the mud, makes a mess of himself, and lies down helplessly beside the dollhouse.

2. Krétakör’s The Ice (A jég)

Another incredible performance, this one by Budapest’s hippest alternative theater troupe Krétakör. They constructed a giant, naturalistic, two-story house that took up well over half of Budapest's Trafo theater space. The audience entered through the set, filing past the actors who sat around a big round table in the “kitchen.” The actors casually greeted us as we entered—I felt a little like I was visiting a friend’s house during a family gathering.

The plot is a bit too weird to sum up here—set in Moscow, it follows several different people from different levels of society who are inducted into a strange, brutal cult obsessed with meteor ice. It’s fascinating, but complicated. (There were no subtitles, so Eszter did simultaneous translation for me—bless her).

The production was no-holds-barred, anything-goes, balls-to-the-wall physical. Actors scaled the set like a jungle gym, hurled books at eachother, launched into pratfalls, and simulated some very convincing violence. Metal lipsyncing in a bathtub full of water. Lots of dancing. Live music. A man humping a computer screen that displays an image of Stalin. Now I can hear some of you telling yourselves, “What’s she talking about? This sounds awful!” And yet I swear to you, it was amazing.

I directed a production a few years back that had a lot of sexual content, but no nudity. Well, The Ice made me feel like such a baby. I’ve never seen so much nudity and simulated sex onstage. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it tasteful—tasteful wasn’t the point—it was always appropriate, weirdly appropriate, and in service of the story. It was not aggressive or “in your face,” not angry or confrontational, but simply human. The characters are all lost, confused, upset. Their sexual encounters are funny, or tragic or both; usually awkward, drunken, or a little nauseating, or embarrassing. Nothing really “sexy” about it.

Krétakör’s bravery blew me away. But it wasn’t just the nudity, or the athleticism, or the raw emotion that got me. Their show also took incredible narrative risks. I was surprised at every turn. Seeing the realistic set, I assumed we were going to see a naturalistic play. Wrong. There were naturalistic moments, sure. But at other times, two people sitting in front of a fan, waving a spatula like a windshield wiper, were suddenly in a car. The actors broke the fourth wall regularly, transitioned seamlessly from a multi-generational family dinner into a sleazy nightclub without so much as a lighting change. It reminded me a little of Gatz in that way; black box “open theater” in a naturalistic set.

And all that was just in the first act. After intermission, the audience was seated on the two-story set, facing the former audience bleachers, which had been transformed into a forest of miniature Christmas trees. The act was one long monologue, split between different actors: an explanation of the origins of the cult. Those actors not speaking created a soundscape that underscored the monologue. At first the actors voiced the bird and insects of a forest. Then their sounds morphed gradually into into the clattering of a train heading towards a concentration camp, the clack of typewriters in a German office, and later on, the low choral hum of an encounter with a mysterious meteor. It was the most “choral” work I’ve seen in the theater.

I hear that Krétakör will be coming to the Lincoln Center Festival this summer; get your tickets now, I say. Spend whatever it takes. I know I plan on seeing them as much as possible while here.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 Roundup: Negreni

I’m racing to get in a mention of some of the great stuff we did, but did not blog about, in 2007, before it becomes literally last year’s news.

October 2007: The Negreni Fair. Held every year in Negreni, Transylvania, a three hour train trip away from Cluj, Romania. What is there to say about Negreni that hasn't already been said by Dumneazu? I know I certainly can’t offer any additional insight. I was too overwhelmed. But I do have some pictures (some are by fellow Benningtonite and Budapester Matt E.)

To get to Negreni, you’ve got to take a local train at the butt crack of dawn, far out into the autumn countryside. We got off one stop too soon, in the literal middle of nowhere—as we hesitated to step off the train into a deserted field, the gaggle Romanian teenagers behind us laughed: “It’s Negreni!” The train started moving quickly, and we literally leapt off the train onto a sloping grassy hillside. A twenty minute walk into “town” finally brought us to the outskirts of the fair. I loved these rides, named after Coney Island’s Luna Park, the world’s most famous amusement park 100 years ago…

Inside the fair:

Head scarves were the order of the day for women:

Crazy hats for men:

Most people park by the side of the road or in peasants’ front yards. Those who didn’t come by car park somewhere by the river:

We bought handmade textiles for married friends, almost got a Russian gramophone, were sorely tempted by some shitty instruments, saw antique cookoo clocks a-plenty. But my favorite item at the fair was this baby:

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007


I wanted to write something about the experience of helping to translate Finito while the experience was freshin my mind. Again, I didn’t translate the thing from Hungarian into English—God forbid. Instead I transformed my partner’s precisely translated English prose into rhyming verse. I learned a lot about playwriting and about Hungary along the way.

Playwriting, Directing and Crossword Puzzles
The process was a cross between playwriting, directing and doing a crossword puzzle. Playwriting because you’re writing dialogue—trying to capture a character’s voice, paint vivid images, tell a coherent story, use the right word at the right time. Directing because you also must consider the actions behind each phrase, each exclamation, each word. Why are they saying the things they’re saying? What types of words are they using and why? What’s their strategy? What’s the relationship between the spoken words and the action onstage? As for puzzle—well, try turning this into four lines, ideally of 10 syllables each, where every two lines rhyme and agree rhythmically, and hopefully make sense:

There we go, this is the quality,
The grumpy/rough body covers an unsophisticated/hick/dumb heart!
If I want to say something normally/nicely
“Fuck you”’s are flying around.

Here was my attempted solution to the puzzle:

Well that’s just like you, Gáspár. You’re such a troll:
Thick head, dirty mouth and dumb country soul!
I want to talk nice, like they do on TV
But all you can do is throw “fuck you”’s at me!

Cultural Equivalents
It was an incredible feeling to be inside the architecture of another person’s work—feeling how it functions from the inside out. It felt a little like building a full-scale replica of a historic building. You’re replicating the structure, but using different materials to build in a different location. You trust the structure. It’s the materials that the rest of the world sees and touches that worry you.

Finito is full of puns, inside jokes, cultural references, and double entendres. It just wasn’t possible to find English equivalents (American equivalents, to be exact) for all of them. For instance:

Listen, (young country bride—old fashioned village word used for a young hot chick), should I roll this joint?
This will make you feel like (an old country bandit—like Robin Hood—antiquated village slang.)

There is no American equivalent. All you can do is try to stand next to it:

Howdy, lil’ lady, should I roll this shit?
This will make you Smokey like the Bandit!

I am convinced that one day fifteen years from now I will wake up in the middle of the night with a better solution for that particular couplet. I was actually rather surprised that my partner accepted the Smokey and the Bandit reference, since she rejected this verse, which I loved:

You lie around the house, long face, limp tool,
All you do is sleep, drink, eat, shit and drool.
You’re a wreck, a human Afghanistan,
Useless as a breadwinner and as a man.

My partner was convinced that the Afghanistan reference wouldn't fly.

Translating Hungary
Let’s start with the pig slaughtering feast. Traditionally, Hungarian families in the countryside have a pig killing feast every fall (it’s a little like Thanksgiving in America). Over the course of the day they slaughter their family hog, and friends and family help to preserve every part of the hog in sausages, aspic, cured meat, etc. They make a huge feast, with special traditional pork dishes.

Obviously this is a village tradition, one that can’t survive the move to the city. It’s also totally unfamiliar to Americans. But knowing about this type of party is essential if you want to fully understand Finito. Gáspár’s wife refers to him as a hog. Before Gáspár kills himself, his family throws a kind of pre-wake for him, inviting everyone to dinner. The table is set as for a pig-slaughtering feast. Gáspár is the family pig who will be killed to feed his friends and family. Later in the play, Gáspár takes a pre-suicide bath in his tin courtyard bathtub—the same tub that would be used to bathe a pig before slaughter. (There are more Gáspár-pig parallels in the play, but I’ll spare you the details.) How the hell do you convey that in translation?

The play takes place in a village Hungary that has one foot in medieval times and one foot in the modern post-socialist world. The language shifts easily between media-saavy “TV talk” and folksy, age-old idioms. When Gáspár takes his revenge on the world by humiliating the powerful people of his village world and even visiting media royalty, there’s something powerfully Breughel-esque, psychedelic, and ancient about the scene. The year king; carnival; topsy-turvydom.

But there’s a lot of modern Hungary in the play, too. By now, Rick and I have learned that government bureauocracy and red tape is deeply rooted in Hungarian culture. (Example: recently my mom sent me a birthday gift. At the post office, I had to visit no fewer than 6 separate windows to pick it up. Window one sent me to window 5, who sent me to window 3 with new forms. Window 3 took my forms, gave me new forms, and sent me to window 7. Window 7 took my new forms, gave me something else to fill out, and sent me back to window 1… It was like a Buster Keaton routine.) This uniquely Hungarian obsession with paperwork and regulation is mined for comic effect in Finito:

(Poet reading the suicide note he has written for Gáspár)
Can we accept, this, sons of the nation?
They have robbed our budget allocation
30 percent. Poets are slaves in Hungary,
Broken, oppressed with 20 percent VAT.
We are denied even a simple tax rebate,
Because of intellectual product tax rates.

What in the hell do I care what you deduct?
I don’t got no intellectual product.
At most I try to do the crossword sometimes,
Or fill out forms in the unemployment line.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is the (literal) centrality of Gáspár’s shitter to the plot. Gáspár tries to hang himself in the outhouse. He spends much of the play locked inside it. Now I thought this was just potty humor—but apparently Hungarian men are notorious for liking to spend lots of time on the can, especially in an outdoor toilet.

(Police Major giving an interview to visiting reporter)
Let’s look a bit deeper into the hole
The courtyard outhouse is a phallic symbol.
When you travel through the country look hard
Through the window: what’s in every back yard?
Outhouse! Behind every home, there they are!
Ancient apocryphal wood home altar,
Erect fertility symbol, you stand
Proud in the yards of our tiny homeland.
Adorned with totems, the pagan’s revenge,
A powerful, private, slate-roofed Stonehenge,
Where a man can retreat and meditate,
A shrine to the vigor that makes men great.

We are all dying, all losers, our resort
Is here, the last place we can find some comfort:
A compact male universe, land of dreams
Where we reign from out thrones as gods supreme.

Then there are the curses. Hungarians have EXCELLENT curses. I have two favorites: first “Go back to your mom’s stinky pussy,” which I am assured does not sound so bad in Hungarian. The second is an old village expression: “the strongest dog always fucks.”

Ironically, however, Hungarians don’t really believe in cursing onstage. My partner and I clashed constantly over the amount of swear words in the translation. She was always complaining that we were swearing too much; the words were correct but the tone was too harsh. Finally the source of the argument emerged. According to Pat, in Hungary, swearing onstage is still shocking. When a character swears onstage, they lose the audience’s sympathy, become less credible. I realized that in American theater, there’s an unspoken assumption that intense feelings must be expressed by cursing—especially if the characters are lower class, as in Finito. In some cases it may be hard to take a character seriously UNLESS they swear. (Think David Mamet.)

The Lost World
But probably the biggest difference was the most subtle. The night that I went to see Finito with my partner, a kind Hungarian couple informed us that this piece would be impossible to translate. Why? “Because it shows the truth—it shows what’s really going on here—such a shame.” I was a little confused. To be honest, I loved Finito but didn’t consider its story very groundbreaking. Desperately poor people selling their souls for fame, media circus spinning out of control, money and power corrupt all they touch…I felt like I’d heard it before. Pat had to explain bit by bit that in Hungary, these themes still are new—really new. Gáspár is unemployed: it wasn’t so long ago that there were no unemployed people in Hungary. Under socialism, everyone had a job. She went on. Gáspár’s bankrupt village, Nagyabrand (Grand Illusion, or Bigreverie) can’t afford to fix its roads, and no one cares. The media will cover Siamese twins and childmolesting priests, but not real the real crisis in this country town. People have forgotten how to talk to each other without referencing television, they’ve losing everything that made them who they are and they’re buying into a new media culture that has nothing to offer them. Sadly, these are all changes that happened a long time ago in the US. But here, the pain of that transition is still fresh, because the change is still happening.

A Shot In the Dark
But my strangest realization came on opening night. We had some loud cheers and some raspberries. I knew that I felt we had produced a good work in English. I know it is much better than anything that a sole Hungarian speaker (or a sole English speaker) could have produce on their own. But I actually have no idea whether it’s a good translation, because I can’t understand Hungarian.

It was the capper on a feeling I’d had throughout the whole process: my writing method had to be in many senses “guess and check.” I had to rely on my partner to tell me whether I had gotten the sense of the speech—just like I had to rely on her to tell me what people were saying at intermission, or what the contracts said, or how the playwright described his characters. I trust her, sure—but it’s a little practicing archery blindfolded. My partner tells me: “a little to the left…up…no, back to the right…OK, now.” I let the arrow fly, then ask “did I hit it?” Or perhaps it’s like a blindfolded treasure hunt in an unfamiliar house. Following verbal instructions, you reach something that feels like a treasure chest—but how can you be sure? You can’t see it. It’s a leap of faith. A shot in the dark.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Key Gun Knife

I was in Paris in the beginning of November. I couldn't afford to pick up any new clothes or even to buy a really good French meal, but at least I found a good gift for Rick: the world's tuffest keychain.

A gun that turns into a knife. Genius! Can I get a witness?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Unicycle

The other night Eszter and I visited some friends of hers. Being helpful television addicts, they decided to teach me about Hungary via an 80’s childrens’ television series about walking across Hungary. It was super evocative—the clothes, the soundtrack, even the look of the light, the quality of the film. Kids in red short shorts and tube socks hiking through a real-life fairy tale: Forests, rural towns, feasts in peasant courtyards, medieval churches and castles…

Since it was a hiking-themed show, there were plenty of shots of the kids walking through leafy woods, with their trusty packs strapped on their backs. One of the kids was pushing a unicycle in front of him. I thought this was really weird since the group was walking along forest trails, and there was nowhere level for him to ride his unicycle. A mountain bike I can understand, but a mountain unicycle? It seemed like a colossal waste of energy to walk this unicycle over hill and dale, searching for a level strip of ground. What had gotten into this kid? Why?

Then I remembered just how often I see people in my neighborhood riding unicycles. I had thought that this was because we live near a unicycle store (seriously). But could there be something more to it? Street performers here often have unicycles. Coincidence? Or pattern?

Sarah: (going out on a limb) So why are unicycles so Hungarian?

Blank stares.

Sarah: I mean, what’s with the unicycles? Seriously.

Eszter: Sarah, what are you talking about?

Sarah: Hungarians and unicycles. Is it like Mormons and trampolines?

More confusion. Unicycles explained as not particularly Hungarian, and how did I get that idea?

Sarah: Then why on earth is this kid pushing a unicycle all the way across Hungary? There isn’t even a place to ride it!

Eszter: What unicycle?

Sarah: What do you mean, what unicycle? The thing with one wheel and a handle!

Eszter: This is for counting the steps. It’s a…a pedometer. The program is called 100,000 steps in Hungary. So they count the steps.

Sarah: …oh.

Anyway, as the night wore on the talk turned to children’s television. Of course when my friends were kids, this was still a socialist eastern block country. And they had socialist TV shows. Like the Czech cartoon Bob a Bobek.

It’s about two little rabbits that live in a hat. Every morning they get up, do their exercises like good little socialist rabbits, then go to work because “Work Makes You Noble!” (translation courtesy my girl Andi.) Of course one little rabbit always wants to sleep in, and his gung-ho proletarian brother must gently remind him of his rabbit duty. Then they go contribute to society.

Rick and I have watched a number of these episodes and, as someone completely unable to understand the dialog, I have some observations.

Not only do these rabbits go to work every day, but they do really punishing work for such little rabbits: stacking bricks, industrial dish washing, shoveling coal on a fucking steamship, etc. Even their job serving ice cream to hordes of school children looks harrowing.

Second of all, Bob and Bobek are often called upon to help foil thieves. They’re not detectives—they just run into a lot of bungling burglars with big eyes. Now I, like others who have visited Czech Republic, have my fair share of pickpocket and restaurant rip-off stories. Coincidence? Or is this a Czechoslovak thing? You’re a good citizen if you lay bricks and fight crime? Am I crazy here?

Alright. So I’m still pretty ignorant about my surroundings. But at least I’m not poor Kelly Pickler:

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Verse Comedy

Last night, after writing about my translation job, I discovered this Marx Brothers clip:

Rhyming verse!!!! Who knew?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Translator

Last night was the premiere of my translation (via subtitles) of Finito, by István Tasnádi, at the massive Orkeny Szinhaz in downtown Budapest.

That's right, I finally got paid for doing some dramatic writing. This was a commission for the Budapest International Contemporary Drama Festival.

Not that I know enough Hungarian to make up my own sentences, let alone translate a full-length play. I was half of a translation team. Here’s how it happened. Last summer, my friend Patricia took a playwriting workshop with Tasnádi at a writer’s colony on Lake Balaton. Tasnádi asked Patricia to take a crack at translating his play for the Contemporary Drama Festival. However, it just so happened that his play was

1. A “pseudo-Moliere” play written in rhyming iambic pentameter
2. Full of Hungarian TV slang, rural dialect, literary references, elevated poetry and (of course) tons and tons of puns.

In other words, a little bit hard to translate. As a matter of fact, Tasnádi had already rejected about 10 translators’ efforts. Since this was a task that would intimidate even most native speakers (it sure as shit intimidated me), Patricia asked me to work with her. She translated from Hungarian into prose English, explained the characters and cultural references and idioms to me, and I then converted the prose into slangy rhyming iambics. We did a two-page sample and, miracle of miracles, we got accepted!

The plot, by the way, is roughly as follows: In rural Hungary, a depressed ex-pig sticker named Gáspár is being harassed by his sexually frustrated wife. Gáspár threatens to hang himself in his outhouse (are you laughing yet?). His family calls in the town’s Mayor to resolve the situation, but the Mayor decides to exploit Gáspár’s suicide to publicize his town’s financial crisis. Soon more and more outsiders are getting in on the act. The media descends on the town. A corrupt police negotiator tries to buy Gáspár’s corpse as part of a shady mafia transaction. The head of the New Narrative Union of Hungary decides to transform Gáspár into a poet and present his death as a protest against escalating taxes on intellectual products. And a fading teen pop star, who fears her 15 minutes of fame are up, claims that Gáspár is killing himself for the love of her. Finally the biggest TV show in Hungary joins the fun. Suddenly Gáspár is getting huge bucks to knock himself off on live national television. I suppose I won’t spoil the ending in case anyone out there wants to read it, but let’s just say there is a truly Molieresque ending.

Unfortunately we had just under a month to translate the whole thing—80 pages of freaking verse. Needless to say, I basically didn’t sleep. This was honestly the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything. Just to reach the end of page 80, I had to work about 16 hours a day with no socializing, no distractions, no procrastination, not even lunch. (Actually that's not true, Rick made me lunch). Holy fuck.

But we did it, and we even managed to figure out how to make subtitles for the performance in power point. And last night, Rick and our friends Dylan, Michelle, Matt, and Laci got to see it in the theater. I've never presented work in such a gorgeous theater. It has a balcony and pro ushers in matching outfits! It has marble snack bars! Sold out, a great crowd…

Plus the chance to see my name, Sarah Gansher (why can no one say my name correctly, ever?) in the program. If anyone wants to read a rhyming verse comedy about a dude who tries to hang himself in an outhouse, let me know!

Explain Yourself

So it’s an in-between time for me right now, in lots of ways. I started this blog when I first moved to Budapest, to write about my culture shock, to make sense of the world around me. But as I got more and more comfortable here, the blog got harder to write. Maybe I need to change my format a little, give myself permission to write a little more about my life and less about the city around me.

There’s plenty to report. Trip to Cluj, my first gig getting paid for dramatic writing, funny encounters with the Hungarian literary scene, shopping for Shea butter in Paris, my birthday (I actually had a party!), my first English lessons, etc.

So let the sloppy new experimental blogging begin!