Under the Spring Festival’s “Together in the city” theme, two chamber presentations on 7 May were staged at Central European University. Both one-acts shared the common threads of issues that have concerned women for centuries: reproduction’s many vicissitudes, disenfranchisement, and society’s baked-in assumptions. Both performances were musically innovative, original, and captivatingly performed.
Born out of necessity
The first, titled “for who was not born,” is the brainchild of flutist Dominika Ács, pianist María Valverde, and percussionist Veronika T-Potzner. A kind of transcendental etude of its own, its loosely constructed theme of mourning for any loss experienced at any age was delineated with a series of songs in three languages, instrumental arrangements of classical and popular works, poetry, prayers, and personal diary excerpts.
While keeping a diary of her own personal loss, Ács started an online research project where women could contribute anonymously. Their stories of miscarriage, abortion, guilt, abuse, and abandonment, as well as the final words in artist Frida Kahlo’s diary “he stayed but never arrived who was not born” inspired the title for a musical vehicle that could represent the healing process.
Their charismatic pastiche staged in a large open atrium that gave them space to stretch out and walk into the audience as well, used their formidable musical skills in a program that ran the gamut: songs by Bartók, de Falla, Schubert, Gershwin, and American pop, separated by spoken dramatic texts and striking instrumental numbers. The more dramatic parts were enacted by Ács, and the more upbeat by Valverde — both of whom exhibited beautiful natural singing voices as well. The enchanting sound of T-Potzner’s marimba solos in that acoustic was a special treat that added to the mystique.
When referring to the urgency of those women’s stories and their negotiation of loss, Ács expresses her emotional connection in the scene where she grasps an imaginary knife in front of her and squeezes it so hard that she cannot reopen her hand. “I couldn’t stop,” she explains. “That’s how the body and mind work. It would be fake if I didn’t squeeze [in performance]. The truth is right now.”
“for who was not born” will be repeated on Saturday, May 14 at 19:00, Lumen Kávézó, Horánszky utca 5.
Skirting the issues in a new way
The second performance was the musical theater piece “A room of one’s own,” inspired by an early 20th-century essay by the libertine British author Virginia Woolf. Actress Ágota Szilágyi performed a dramatic solo role surrounded by members of the Metrum Ensemble: clarinetist (and music director) Lajos Rozmán, flutist Anna Rákóczy, cellist Eszter Agárdi, and percussionist Attila Gyárfás, who freely floated around the stage, as did she. Her affecting monologue as a kind of Everywoman, alongside her ghostly companions, broke the fourth wall often, asking pressing questions about her role in society, her sense of sovereignty, and her rights to her choices.
While her script talked ardently about psycho-social concerns of the day, it was the visual life of the scenario that gave viewers food for deeper thought, and the omnipresent live musical ‘soundtrack’ gave listeners the hidden psychological factors – a kind of sonic mapping of her consciousness, from the skin to soul.
Szilágyi first appeared hiding under a 19th-century hoop-skirt petticoat, from which she wriggled out to reveal her in 18th-century masculine pantaloons and striped jacket, while the male musicians wore fluffy, frilly skirts. At one point, she grabbed a bullhorn and initiated a lock-step marching tune, at other times she frantically posted her notepapers on the wall and then grabbed a double bass and started plucking it. After those frenzied moments, she stood silently stretching her neck while the cellist played pizzicato slides – a private moment that could have been easily overlooked but instead indicated her need to realign her posture, physically and emotionally. Director Kriszta Vadász’s cleverly staged physicalization of Woolf’s/protagonist’s iconoclastic ideas, accompanied by her merry band of musicians, created an entertaining combination of Commedia dell’Arte and modern environmental theater.
The atonal and atmospheric musical tapestry felt entirely improvisational, but was in fact, written by composers Petra Szászi and Abigél Varga. Their soundscape wasn’t melodic, except only when the ensemble quoted classical composers Bach and the Schubert song “Meine Ruh’ ist hin” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), wherein Szilágyi exhibited a sweet natural soprano that expressed interminable heartache before she jumped up to dance with the clarinetist.
Later, an especially striking group pose gave the cellist the spotlight in lieu of the protagonist: Bach’s joyful G major Cello Suite’s opening arpeggios proceeded to self-destruct into wild dissonance while everyone held up mirrors in front of her. This seemed to me to be a defining moment: Szilágyi’s repeated phrase “only a woman” had turned into “a woman only” — but on her own terms, and society’s opinions no longer occupied any real estate in her brain.