2017 Edmonton Fringe Festival review: Szeretlek: A Hungarian Love Story

For all the knocks I have to give it from the get go, it's not all that bad.

It's certainly not all that great either, but when you consider it's the dreaded "my story"/"my family story" combined with physical theatre, Szeretlek: A Hungarian Love Story could have been a lot worse. And you get to learn a new dance, a new word, plus discover how to pronounce Budapesht correctly.

The premise is simple: the story about the young love between author/costar Zita Nyarady's grandmother Catalina and the man she would end up being with as long as they both shall lived. Because Catalina came of age in the shadow of the Second World War, and in a small Hungarian town, the setting becomes as important as the characters. Nyrady also brought her...husband Mike France ...along as her co-star. Together they play different characters as the story is expressed through dance and narration.
This is, for better or worse, nothing like the "Hungarian love story" that won at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.

I think she said husband, but then again she didn't take his last name so it's possible that isn't even true. Of course, I'm not sure the "take your husbands name" rule is that valid when he spells it Myque Franze either.

If you're cringing at the thought of "interpretive dance" as I was when I was cajoled into attending (because of my recent long and frankly expensive as all get out vacation, I was intending to not see any plays this year), relax: there isn't really any interpretive dance. There actually isn't too much dance at all actually: there's an opening number with an umbrella and a pair of masks that are supposed to reflect Catalina and her eventual husband in old age, but end up looking vaguely like a Drazi and every cartoonist's stereotype of Hungarian features. Then there's a pivotal scene which takes place at an autumn dance involving a traditional Hungarian dance so easy they even convince the audience to do it. There's a weird dream sequence (the only interpretive number) where the actors practice the airplane ride from Grosse Pointe Blank, and that's about it for the dancing portions of the show.

The rest is just an autobiographical telling of Catalina's life. Nyrady is clearly proud of her family history, so much that perhaps she noticed there really isn't that much story there. The most compelling bit was when she was forced to choose between two men vying for her hand in marriage, the "soap opera" portion as Nyrady refers to it...but that part of the story is basically just dropped. "Oh and she chose the linguist" is the punchline and indeed the end of the story. (Relax: the identity of the successful suitor is given away in the first 5 minutes of the play)

That's really the frustrating part of the play: we're left out of all the good bits of drama. Part of that is understandable: this story was formed when Nyrady interviewed her grandmother and other family members about her life. I know full well that when you try to suss out details in this fashion, you're not going to get all of the juicy or dramatic bits. There's a extended riff on the hat Catalina bought with her first paycheque, hoping to find some sort of universal statement about the human condition or lost youth or something, when instead it's probably just that with your first paycheque you like to make a fun purchase. I can't remember what I bought with my first real paycheque but it was probably at least 5.5% alcohol (and possibly the reason I cannot remember). There are a couple decent scenes about Catalina the teacher trying to deal with children barely younger than her who were scared by WWII in such a way that no discipline could likely frighten.

As mentioned, WWII is a big part of the story even though none of the characters were old enough to have been directly involved in it (Catalina's first love is killed in the war, but whether he was old enough to serve or just a civilian casualty is never addressed). Nyrady observes that her grandmother doesn't like to talk about the war much at all, and a lot of those years are black holes in the story that simply will never be filled. This really brought to life the truism I was told once by a Canadian Forces member who had served in Bosnia in the late 90s, a time when most of the serious fighting was over and a stint in that country was just a pretty shitty paid European vacation. Having left Yugoslavia without any good war stories of his own, he recalls talking with WWII and Korean War veterans at the Legion and trying to find out from them what it was like to be in a real war, an existential battle against equally/superior equipped forces in a raging battle for the future of the globe. None of them would talk about it, even to other military veterans who had come under fire. It just wasn't something that was discussed. As he put it contrasting with some of his fellow Bosnian vets:

Men who have been in a real battle never want to talk about it. Men who haven't been in a real battle will never shut up about it.
Catalina lost her first love and her mother during that War. Remember that Hungary started as fighting for the Axis powers but was later seized by Germany after her second-rate army fell apart fighting the well-equipped Soviets in a winter campaign. Six months later the Soviets invaded and despite an official armistice the tattered remains of the Royal Hungarian Army continued to fight to keep the Russians at bay. Within months, Budapest was besieged and by the war's end Hungary was under Soviet control. At the time of this story, a Soviet puppet government was in place that lasted until the 80s.

For the most part the story itself isn't all that thrilling. Catalina buys a hat. She teaches unruly boys. She gets swindled by her future mother-in-law to pay extra for shaving soap (being told it's a miracle product). That same mother-in-law tells through (music-less!) song that she wanted her studious son to become a priest but instead he wanted to become a scholar and get married. He woos Catalina at the aforementioned autumn dance and this is where the two actors really do their best physical work at expressing something that is really hard to capture with words: the joys of young love. You remember those heady days: instead of a coffee date and then endless Netflix and Chill nights and/or Skype conversations, it's just you and this young girl you've met...the charming simplicity of it all. She likes you. You like her. You lose her for a couple hours at a bush party because she got drunk and decided to sleep it off under a van and when you found her the Red Indian guys who owned the van tried to beat you up because they're savages like that, and then you and her drive away (not in the van) and make out in a pickup along a lake somewhere just outside of Bonnyville. You know, beautiful and simple young love stories like that. The way they move and their expressions really sell that, and I appreciate it. It's the best part of the play.

After that unfortunately Catalina falls ill...literally. We're never told what the problem was and it's likely nobody ever knew. She collapsed suddenly which almost sounds like a diabetic attack, though a lifelong ailment like that would have been detected before she lived into the 21st century. The other of her suitors is a handsome doctor known to participate in weird experimental treatments: in a gory-for-kids scene he uses needles to remove blood from one area of her body and re-inject it into another. This process is technically autohemotherapy by the way, and it's a quack method. Don't try this at home with a syringe and a comatose grandmother, kids! But in the end, she wakes up, chooses her man, and...well, the abrupt ending of it sort of ruins the momentum they had been building up. This show is advertised as 60 minutes, it's only a shade over 45. I normally wouldn't ask physical theatre to run longer, and there are certainly parts earlier on that could have been trimmed, but it wouldn't be too bad to see anything of their life after he slips a ring on her finger.

As love stories go it's fairy-tale like but brutal, familiar but just a little on that border of strange and alien, not as well defined as you think it should be. In other words: it's quintessentially Hungarian.

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