L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaNewsLSA DirectoryEventsContacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Business News

-People News

-Product News

-Theatre in Review

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

-A Theatre Project Book

-PLASA Events

Theatre in Review: The Place We Built (The Flea Theater)

Cleo Gray (center) and members of the company. Photo: Hunter Canning

A showdown with the Budapest police opens a window on the degradation of Hungary's democracy in Sarah Gancher's ambitious and gripping new play. The place referred to in the title is The Seagull, a bar/nightclub/theatre run collectively by a group of (mostly Jewish) young people; as the play begins they are in a state of siege, surrounded by the police (who are claiming the building violates the fire code, a trumped-up charge), with 38 hours to decide whether or not to evacuate -- and in doing so, abandon the place forever.

It is 2013 and the promise of prime minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party has devolved into an authoritarian regime maintained by the canny use of identity politics, pitting "real" Hungarians against immigrants and Jews. The young people of the play, born in the early '80s, have had only a brief window of opportunity to explore their own heritage, heretofore erased by the Holocaust and the rise of communism. As one of them, Julia, recalls, she was 14 before she realized, "I don't have any living grandparents. And my mom won't celebrate Christmas, and she hates religion. Only once a year, we eat matzoh for a week and she won't talk about it.....At 14, I asked my mother, 'Are we Jewish?' She said, 'Why do you want to know?' 'Are we?' 'Why talk about it? It was all a long time ago'."

Still, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of democracy, the conversation about Jewish identity began. One evening, a few of them, led by Ben, a theatre student, break into the abandoned apartment of his grandmother. It starts out as a lark, trying on the old Orthodox woman's wigs and perusing her correspondence. Before long, however, they are holding "grandma parties" and hosting seders and Hanukkah celebrations. The group's fascination with the area, formerly the Jewish quarter, grows, until the intrepid Kata, who is skilled at breaking and entering, finds an abandoned space that is turned into The Seagull.

A wild, anything-goes atmosphere prevails at The Seagull: Avant-garde artists rub elbows with socialists, young Jews in search of their past, bachelorette parties, and anyone looking for a hookup. The liquor flows, the music is nonstop, and the aesthetic experiments include obscene puppet shows in which a frighteningly endowed Orban rapes the nation. At first, the only problems are occasional complaints about the noise from a neighbor. But even as these young people are enjoying a mad burst of freedom unlike anything they've ever known, the ground is shifting beneath them, as the country turns inward, becoming increasingly anti-Semitic and xenophobic, and the Seagull crowd is portrayed by the police as a bunch of degenerates -- and, they never fail to mention, Jews, as well. The bell really tolls when Aisha, the group's American expatriate, has a chilling encounter with Ilona, once a regular at the Seagull and now transformed. "A country is like a family, and family has to come first," she says, cheerily. "We have to put Hungarians first, not the EU, not migrants, not gypsies, not any other special interests. I say that out of love. Somebody has to love this country."

The Place We Built moves smartly between the siege, with the group trying to make a decision as time runs out, and a series of flashbacks, showing how The Seagull came to be -- thus providing a broad-canvas view of the huge shifts in the country's political climate over a short period of time. We also see how the place begins to fall apart, as Aniko, the group's take-charge character, begins to exert more control over the operation, butting heads with Ben, who programs the performances and activities. And we learn how a protest that ends in the occupation of Fidesz headquarters seals the bar's fate. Also, Aisha is making a documentary about the siege and her solo interviews with many of the participants are remarkably revealing. One of the most poignant involves Mihaly, a closeted gay who comes out for a brief and euphoric period, but, following a horrific experience at a gay pride parade -- the marchers are pelted with eggs into which acid has been injected -- he flees for a life of solitary exile in Austria.

As you can imagine, The Place We Built is a big, rangy work, and it's the Flea's good luck that the director, Danya Taymor, has a gift for pointing our attention in the right direction, even when the stage is filled with chaotic activity. The cast, made up of the Bats, the theatre's resident company, once again is more than up to the task. Standouts include Leta Renée-Alan as Aniko, who comes to resent always being the adult in the room; Cleo Gray as Julia, who wants to hang on to The Seagull no matter what; Kristin Friedlander as Kata, arguably the freest spirit of them all, until she flees for the US and a job with IBM; Lydian Blossom as Szuszanna, who, upon hearing that she is pregnant, starts wondering who, among several candidates, the father might be; Isabelle Pierre as Aisha, whose expat life is soured by the rise of racial prejudice in her adopted country; Tamara Del Rosso, whose Ilona is transformed into a sweet, happy-faced fascist; Tom Costello as Ben, who sets everything in motion with his grandma parties; and Brendan Dalton as Mihaly, who returns from the safety of exile to make one last stand.

The Place We Built Runs in repertory with Wolf in the River, so the scenic design, by Arnulfo Maldonado and Feli Lamenca, is a slightly altered version of Wolf's set. (Happily, Wolf's central mound of dirt has been removed.) Masha Tsimring's lighting, Claudia Brown's costumes, and Ben Truppin-Brown's sound design are solidly done.

The story of The Place We Built is a dismaying one, and, watching it, one cannot ignore the parallels with the Occupy Wall Street movement and this year's presidential election, with its themes of xenophobia and division, all of which makes an already involving story seem all too troublingly relevant. The script is slightly overlong, and would probably benefit from a larger-scale production, but this is a very solid achievement, an excellent chance to make the acquaintance of an extremely promising playwright. Let's hope that she's not a prophetic one. -- David Barbour

(9 May 2016)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

Follow us on Facebook  Follow us on Twitter