Béla Pintér Company’s Our Secrets also looked back at the 20th century in a bid to better understand the current one, in what was perhaps the festival’s most successful blend of theatrical élan and political bite. Setting his story in the folk revival “dance house” subculture of the Budapest 1980s to tell a contemporary tale of abuse of power, playwright/director Pintér’s wonderfully acted, beautifully staged play 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.
Bela Pinter’s “Our Secrets.”The stage comes overshadowed by an enormous reel-to-reel tape player—a canny representation of both the folk music revival and the total surveillance state that neatly evokes and updates a certain ambivalent nostalgia. The action is set in a dance house at the center of the folk revival subculture, where a group of enthusiasts led by expert dancer and singer Imre (played by Pintér) make up a seemingly harmless movement tolerated by the Communist regime, as distinct perhaps from the Goth-like underground music scene, which also finds some fleeting representation here in the play’s subtly drawn characters and lively original score (played variously by actors and the musicians stationed on either side of the stage).
Imre turns out to be editor-in-chief of a certain samizdat paper railing regularly against the regime. Meanwhile, another member of the dance house, folk music collector István Balla Bán (played with hangdog humor and a quiet but wrenching anguish by Zoltán Friedenthal) is tortured by his unnatural attraction to his seven-year-old stepdaughter Timike (played by the sharp and vivacious Éva Enyedi). Although hiding this private shame from his wife and friends, István is helpless to keep it from the ears of the state, which listens in on his psychiatric sessions, and soon finds himself blackmailed into becoming a government informer.
The company displays a remarkable flair, never devolving into mere caricature, even in cross-dressing roles that would end up as pure shtick in lesser hands. Instead, the actors infuse each role with a definite humanity, a recognizable absurdity, vulnerability and violence to which all are potentially susceptible and on which abusive structures of power rely. Mingling humor and tragedy in a deft production enthralling to behold, Our Secrets starkly paints the politics of the present precisely in terms of the buried secrets of the past, namely the unwillingness of subsequent governments to name or discuss the legacy of the widespread network of informers that elevated careers even as it destroyed lives.
Seeing Pintér and his troupe at work once more—the company was represented in three separate productions back in 2013—it’s easy to understand why they currently represent the most financially and critically successful model of an independent theater at work in Hungary and abroad today. Theirs are crowd-pleasing shows in an almost old-fashioned theatrical vein that nonetheless manage to feel utterly fresh, urgent and devilishly intelligent.