At a time of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and ubiquitous security cameras, the Hop presents the US premiere of a fast-paced, tragicomic and riveting examining the sinister surveillance culture of Cold War Hungary.
Our Secrets, by leading Central European theater artists Béla Pintér and Company, is presented at the Hop Friday and Saturday, January 13 and 14, after which the show runs in Boston and New York City. The Hop engagement is the first stop in the company’s first US tour.
Boldly illustrating theater’s long tradition of challenging the powers that be, Our Secrets shines a light on the informant culture of Cold War Hungary, in which friends spied on friends.
The play is performed in Hungarian with English supertitles and is not meant for young viewers: it includes adult language and graphic sexual subject matter, such as pedophilia.
Two free events help set the context for this engagement. On Thursday, January 12, at 5 pm, in a panel discussion entitled “Secrets & Spies: Artists in the Eastern Bloc,” Pintér and several Dartmouth faculty members will discuss Central European culture under 20th-century communism, in 41 Haldeman Hall. On Friday, January 13, at 7 pm, in a pre-show talk entitled “Welcome to Hungary,” Hungarian scholar Edit Nagy of the University of Florida’s Center for European Studies shares the sociopolitical background of Our Secrets, in Faculty Lounge of the Hopkins Center.
Our Secrets takes us to 1980s Budapest, when people were rediscovering Hungary’s vibrant folk music and dances. In a dance hall, dancers swirl to tangy folk tunes played by an onstage band, belting out ribald lyrics as dance snobs romance each other and snub clumsy newbies. Then the music quiets and a musician steps forward and soon confesses to a dark desire. Unbeknownst to him, his government is taping his every word, and will use them to destroy individuals and lifelong friendships.
This drama unfolds between vignettes of dancing and daily life in Cold War-era Hungary. Wearing print shirts, faux peasant skirts, BeeGees hair and other 1980s Eastern Bloc finery, cast members sing and play instruments and multiple characters. Behind them, a huge retro tape reel slowly turns—a reminder of the government’s constant spying on its citizens. And, as the play points out in a coda, no Hungarian government since the end of Communist rule, either left- or right-wing, has made public the list of those who informed to Hungary’s secret police—unlike Germany, for instance, where Stasi files were opened to the public soon after Unification.
Wrote American Theatre Magazine, Our Secrets is a “wonderfully acted, beautifully staged play [that] proved hilarious and horrifying by turns—and fast turns at that, pivoting around its theme of corrupted lives with the effortless precision of a film by Pedro Almodóvar.”
Wrote The Herald, Scotland, “Imagine Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb 2006 film The Lives Of Others (which explores the oppressive surveillance by the Stasi in the old East Germany) crossed with the stinging wit of Oscar Wilde and the tense inter-personal relations of Harold Pinter…Cleverly written and brilliantly acted…the play ends with a sharply satirical dig at Hungary’s current, deeply compromised capitalist democracy.”
Pintér is a 46-year-old playwright/director/performer celebrated for his ability to combine biting social critiques with captivating theater, often laden with farce as well as Hungarian folk music and dance. At a time when Hungary’s rightwing government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has greatly restricted the country’s funding for independent theater, and has installed political operatives at the helm of important arts organizations, Pintér and his company “currently represent the most financially and critically successful model of an independent theater at work in Hungary and abroad today,” writes American Theatre. “utterly fresh, urgent and devilishly intelligent.”
Founded in 1998 by Pintér, the company aims “to create contemporary productions based on critical-ironic observations of society and themselves. The surreal world which generally characterizes their productions is constructed from a combination of reality and dream, of authentic and kitsch, and from sundry elements of Hungarian culture.”