Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On-Stage: Balaton

Daniel’s Family has issues it might never work out. Some are the usually family resentments, but they have at least one buried secret that is a unique product of where they came from: Communist-Era Hungary. Unfortunately, it seems to be too late for his family to fix their mistakes. Instead, they simply keep reliving them over and over in Ashlin Halfnight’s Balaton, which officially opened last night at The Theatre at 30th Street.

Known as the “Hungarian Sea,” Lake Balaton has long been the landlocked country’s resort area. Under Communism, trips to Balaton, were some of the perks doled out to Olympic athletes, like Daniel’s late father. They are some of the few happy memories his mother Margit still cherishes, and she has a long, if selective memory.

Margit still treats Daniel like a child and nurses several lingering grudges against her daughter-in-law, Vivian, most notably for using a weak excuse as pretext to miss the old woman’s funeral. Indeed, Margit would seem to be dead, as would most of her family, which the audience can deduce pretty quickly from the eulogy excerpts that start the play.

Daniel, Vivian, and Margit try to go about their business as they once did, as video projections of yet another eulogy play behind on screens them. For Daniel, this involves incessant tinkering on the VW bug he inherited from his father. However, Vivian frequently interrupts their dreamlike routine, because she hears a young girl she believes to be her granddaughter, Sabrina.

With its abstract set and multimedia elements, Balaton is something of a surreal work that immediately calls to mind Sartre. Yet, surely this is not Hell, because these characters are not bad people—though Margit is certainly problematic. Indeed, Halfnight’s text is not a hollow exercise in absurdism. Rather it is actually working towards something that definitely serves as an emotional climax.

Daniel O’Brien and Jessica Cummings are quite well matched as Daniel and Vivian, nicely expressing the weight of their shared lifetime frustrations. They could emigrate from an oppressive country, but evidently were never free of the overbearing influence of the manipulative matriarch. Yet they bring a sense of decency to the cold, stark environment of Balaton. Also quite impressive was the poise displayed by young actress playing Sabrina Saturday night (the part rotates between Sadie Scott and Charlotte Williams). Unfortunately, as written, Margit’s character is very harsh, making it quite difficult for Kathryn Kates to humanize the prototypical evil mother-in-law.

The Electric Pear’s production, is quite striking, incorporating dramatic lighting, austere sets, and an effective ambient soundtrack. Yet, Kristjan Thor’s firm direction prevents the proceedings from feeling over-intellectual or abstruse. Obviously, Halfnight has the Hungarian details right as well, considering the production is supported by the Hungarian Cultural Center in conjunction with their Extremely Hungary Festival.

Many might find Balaton a challenging play, but it is very smartly written, and it is definitely set in Hungary for a specific reason. It is a well mounted production recommended for somewhat adventurous patrons. Now open, it runs through November 7th at the Theatre at 30th Street.

(Photo credit: Biz Urban)