A detached voice repeats phrases in English and Hungarian. Actors have fits of emotion and take off their clothes; it's not quite clear why. This is the fictional universe of Maria Irene Fornes' "The Danube" as directed by Jessica Goldschmidt '10, presented this weekend at Production Workshop.
Viewers can always expect to see something edgy in PW's black box theater, but "The Danube," staging a discomfiting and intellectually challenging disintegration of reality, pushes that edge even further in a meticulously imagined production.
Goldschmidt has managed to create a rendering of the play that is both spare and complex. The simple set — a slanted platform with a stair winding round the side — becomes a nuanced tool in the actors' skilled grasp.
"The Danube" takes place in Hungary on the cusp of World War II, in a Budapest divided by the Danube River. The first scene starts in complete darkness. Then, four lights snap on, illuminating the four actors, who stand stiffly and speak with a detached automatism that pervades the rest of the play. The three men wear suits, and the woman is in a simple dress, her hair pulled back in an austere bun. They march robotically to showtune music. Something is not right.
The next scene begins with audio from an intrusive Hungarian-language instruction tape (voiced by Anita Badejo '12). Mr. Sandor (Ned Riseley '12), an avuncular, middle-aged Hungarian man, sits at a table repeating the words. American expatriate Paul Green (Daniel Gonon '12) appears, and their conversation continues, duplicating the language tape that plays throughout. When Eve (Lily Spottiswoode '09) arrives onstage, it's clear, despite her unanimated demeanor, that she and Paul have immediately hit it off.
Through the first few scenes, the adherence to the language tape has the feeling of an awkward parody, deployed for comedic effect. But then there's a sharp turn, where language and emotion start to part ways. Paul asks a nervous Eve out to a cafe, their first date. She adopts a jittery tone, responding with rushed descriptions of Budapest's geography. This one moment could be dismissed as a nervous girl's response, but the rest of the play is plagued by an impersonal dialogue, slave to the narration of the Hungarian instruction tape. Emotions pour out, raw and without the frame of a coherent narrative. Eve and Paul fall into inexplicable bouts of illness and madness, while Mr. Sandor and other characters (all played by Sam Alper '11) become increasingly absurdist in this abstract world.
Goldschmidt said she first discovered the text of "The Danube" in a playwriting class and felt drawn in by a connection with the play's emotional contours and setting. She liked that it incorporated "performing dancing, performing stereotypes."
Goldschmidt studied abroad in Budapest during the fall of her junior year and found the city "wonderful, confusing, full of grime and gorgeousness."
That exact combination of qualities describes "The Danube" as well.