Slovakia Searches for Itself at the International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra

For twenty-eight years, every final week of September the International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra subsumes the small city of Nitra in central Slovakia.

Divadelná Nitra was founded in 1992, a year before Czechoslovakia separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In addition to presenting cutting-edge and innovative work from around Europe, the festival curates its selections around a provocative and resonant theme. This year’s theme, “faces of freedom,” marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when Czechoslovakia peacefully transitioned from communist rule to a parliamentary republic. However, the festival did not limit its exploration of freedom to the strictly political, nor was it a pure celebration of it. Rather, it broadened its focus to include personal freedom and its impact on others.

“We experience first-hand what it means to be able freely to travel, do business, publish, protest,” wrote festival director Darina Kárová in her introduction to the program booklet. “But also unfreely to express our disapproval of the powers that be, run into debt, raise children in face of the uncertain future of our planet.” These themes were explored in the festival’s main program of twelve plays, which were presented at Nitra’s regional theatre, the Andrej Bagar Theatre Nitra, and the city’s smaller intimate puppet theatre, the Karol Spišák Old Theatre. There was also an accompanying program, which included children’s theatre, concerts, talks, a film festival, and even a flea market.

an actor onstage

Moral Insanity from the novel Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. Adapted by Peter Brajerčík and Júlia Rázusová. Directed by Júlia Rázusová. Produced by Prešov National Theatre in Prešov, Slovakia. Photo by Ctibor Bachratý.

Director Júlia Rázusová and dramaturg Ján Šimko curated the Slovak and international programs respectively. Rázusová, who is the artistic director of Prešov National Theatre in Eastern Slovakia, chose pieces that connected strongly to the theme of the festival, rather than choosing specific names or aesthetics, or to represent a variety of regions. Šimko considered the anniversary of the fall of communism, a piece’s impact in their home country, and the connection it would have to an international audience. Both programs included a range of styles and forms: music, movement, visual arts, contemporary drama, and performative events.

I visited the festival to experience and write about current Slovak theatre on behalf of the Baltimore-based Center for International Theatre Development (CITD). Founded in 1990 by Philip Arnoult, CITD’s mission is to identify and bring together performing artists from around the world and find ways for them to collaborate. I attended three of the six international offerings and all six from the Slovak program. Though each piece addressed freedom in its own way, other themes, ideas, and missions knitted them together as well. Much of the work explored corruption and distrust in, or abuse of, power.

four actors with puppets onstage

Stories of Walls. Directed by Katarína Aulitisová. Produced by Bratislava Puppet Theatre in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photo by Ctibor Bachratý.

Politics and Provocation

If the Slovak program is any indication of the country’s temperament, it is circumspect and guarded. In fact, of the fifty productions Rázusová attended throughout Slovakia over the past year, she observed a fascination with history, political manipulation, conspiracy theories, and absurdity, as well as political ethics and responsibility.

According to Rázusová, Slovakia is still reeling from the murder of twenty-seven year old journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018; Kuciak had been investigating Italian organized crime linked to the Slovak government, and the revelations in his reporting and subsequent murder ultimately led to the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico. Furthermore, though Slovakia’s new president, Zuzana Čaputová, ran on a platform of anti-corruption and is a social liberal who is pro-Europe, she faces a pro-Russian government. Bratislava Puppet Theatre dramaturg Peter Galdík described the current Slovak mentality as having hope but also fear. “We have some problems but we are free, we have a strong public media and are independent,” he says. “We have people who are deeply frustrated with capitalism. This is the poor part of Europe and people see how they live in Germany or France, and they feel the difference.”

A commonality I observed was an eagerness to test, provoke, or involve the audience. Some pieces did this directly through interaction and participation, while others used less overt means, through staging choices, breaking the fourth wall, or seeking to deliberately discombobulate their audience through themes and subject matter. “I think it’s the same for every theatre—how to make the audience much more brave and open-minded,” says Rázusová. “Many people just want to amuse themselves, and complicated themes and performances are not suitable for the spectator who is not brave enough and doesn’t have any knowledge that theatre can have another face.” According to her, festivals like Divadelná Nitra and international audience-enrichment programs like Be SpectACTive, which the festival joined last year, are providing opportunities for audiences to engage with and become more receptive to challenging work.

If the Slovak program is any indication of the country’s temperament, it is circumspect and guarded.

International Program: Horror, Role Play, and Satire

The festival unsettled its audience with its opener, the Czech Republic’s National Theatre Opera’s Sternenhoch, based on The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch by Ladislav Klíma (a Kafka contemporary), with a libretto by Ivan Archer and directed by Michal Dočekal. The opera is a horror fantasy about the tortured and violent marriage of the callow Prince Sternenhoch to the lowly waitress Helga, who may be a witch. The production design was steampunk meets circus, and Archer’s music was at turns cacophonous, aggressive, gentle, and romantic. The effect was a constant but ever-shifting propulsion that kept the audience on edge. Providing further discombobulation was the score, which was sung in the constructed international auxiliary language of Esperanto—a choice made to keep the focus on the music rather than the text.

Another show aiming to provoke its audience was Addressless – vagabond role game, by STEREO AKT, a progressive Hungarian theatre collective whose motto, “be present,” is evident in their interest in social justice and audience participation. Directed by the collective’s artistic director Martin Boross, the piece explores homelessness in Hungary. A mix of documentary and game, the audience is divided into teams who will navigate the lives of three Budapest homeless characters. STEREO AKT enlisted participants with experience and knowledge of homelessness in the project—Gyula Balog, a former homeless person and now activist, performed in the piece as one of the three homeless people, and social worker Réka Szenográdi, who functioned as the show’s guide, provided context about the Hungarian homeless population. The teams decided where the characters slept, how they earned (and spent) money, and other challenges, all the while attempting to keep them healthy, without which, according to Szenográdi, a person is likely to stay homeless. Afterwards, we received a list of recommendations on how to help, many of which were simple acts. Giving a few dollars and leaving food or clothing may not get homeless people off the streets, but will give them a dose of the physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment needed to keep going and make it through another day—or hour. A New York City–based version of the show is currently being developed in partnership between STEREO AKT, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and the Working Theater.

The last of the three international plays I attended was teatr.doc’s A Man from Podolsk by Dmitry Danilov. The Moscow company is known for its stark, simple production values and a documentary-driven approach to creating work. A Man from Podolsk was the final production directed by founder Michail Ugarov, who died in 2018. The production involved the audience by acknowledging their existence with sly winks, breaks of the fourth wall, and occasional use of the theatre aisles as a playing space. In a Moscow police station, three officers question Nikolay about his morning absolutions, his job as a newspaper editor, his love life, and his feelings about his hometown of Podolsk. Nikolay’s crime is sleepwalking through his own life. The play recalls Russia’s secret police detaining citizens for innocuous or non-existent crimes, while simultaneously turning this history on its head. These particular police are educated, cultured, and invested in Nikolay appreciating his environment and living his best life—to not do so would be unpatriotic. Is this satirical dark comedy a critique or send-up of the “millennial” existence, here characterized as dissatisfied, lazy, and entitled, with no connection to their history and community? Or is it an attack on an authoritarian police state set on violating the rights of individuals and invading all aspects of their lives? It can be viewed either way or both.

an actor swinging above stage

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Directed by Ján Luterán. Produced by Andrej Bagar Theatre in Nitra, Slovakia. Photo by Ctibor Bachratý.

Slovakia Program: Puppetry and Play

Slovakia has a long and rich history of puppet theatre, but today the art form is often seen as simple and uncomplicated children’s fare. Under the new artistic direction of Katarína Aulitsová, the sixty-two year old Bratislava Puppet Theatre seeks to challenge their audiences’ expectations with serious content like divorce and bullying, as well as with innovative artistry by some of Slovakia’s most innovative independent directors. Stories of Walls, inspired by Michael Reynold’s anthology of the same name and directed by Aulitsová, addresses anxiety, isolation, imprisonment, and walls, both literal and figurative.

The five stories varied from the playful—a border guard’s dog who enjoys his job (though his master doesn’t)—to the dark—a man so afraid he builds a series of walls that progressively become so enclosed he winds up in a coffin where he suffocates. Production and puppet designer Markéta Plachá’s spare and stark aesthetic highlighted the melancholy and alienation of the pieces. Each story generally included only one puppet and this puppet often portrayed the story’s marginalized and isolated figure. Watching this tiny marionette surrounded by adult humans emphasized its vulnerability and fragility, inspiring in me an urge to protect it—though not with walls but with an embrace.

The Andrej Bagar Theatre examined power, corruption, and abdication of responsibility with Joseph’s Heller’s adaptation of his novel Catch-22, directed by Ján Luterán, a young artist whose study with Anne Bogart was evident in his work. Games and play drove the spirit of the production; chess pieces hung from the ceiling, guns were colorful plastic tubes, and the ensemble projected a frenetic, childlike energy. Non-ensemble member Daniel Ratimorský played it straight as the protagonist, Yossarian, though the way he addressed the audience from a mic stand, like a stand-up comedian, further emphasized the sense of play and performance. The depiction of Colonel Cathcart as fatuous and immature was unique to this production, as it was inspired by Slovakia’s speaker of national parliament, Andrej Danko. Staged in the round in the Bagar’s studio space, the production unfolded in front of us, around us, and above us, which added to Yossarian’s, and the audience’s, sense of claustrophobia.

Theatre in Slovakia, as well as the country itself, seems at a crossroads.

Slovakia Program: One-Person Plays and Collage

Renowned Slovak director Ratislav Ballek was represented with two productions, both of which offered innovative and iconoclastic takes on classical texts. Ballek adapted and directed Bible, a reading of select stories from the Old and New Testaments, presented by Bratislava’s Aréna Theatre. Accompanied by the Slovak Chamber Orchestra, actor and visual artist Juraj Kukura read excerpts that included Genesis, Exodus, the crucifixion, and others. Throughout the performance, Kukura threw paint against a canvas, getting as much if not more on his pristine white suit. His empathetic and passionate readings highlighted the sacrifice, heartbreak, and humor in these stories, making the Bible feel fundamentally human. However, by grounding this text in human frailty, the production risks profaning the Bible for its religious audience members, some of whom expressed their disagreement at the post-show discussion.

Prešov National Theatre, an independent company founded by Rázusová with playwright and dramaturg Michaela Zakutanská in 2013, made its festival debut with Moral Insanity, adapted and performed by Peter Brajerčik and directed by Rázusová. (The piece was selected by the Be SpectACTive Audience Program Board, so it was not actually considered part of the Slovak program.) Based on the novel Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, Moral Insanity addresses Slovakia’s belief in conspiracy theories, as well as the rising tide of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Europe. In a cabbage field a young man stands in a crucifixion stance, spouts racist vitriol, and insinuates that he has done even greater damage to others. A charming and appealing actor, Brajerčik slams audiences with enraging and chilling questions and statements like, “Where has it been written that you must tell the truth? And what is truth?” and “Identification with race is not merely a physical one but a spiritual one.” The play depicts the terror of these voices being amplified both in Europe and the United States.

Finally, the piece that most embodied freedom as a theatrical form was Honey and Dust’s eu.genus. Honey and Dust is an artistic collective that blends theatre, fine art, dance, and music. Its projects are generally the brainchildren of director and musician Andrej Kalinka, who brings together an assortment of interdisciplinary artists to create them, often having them work outside of their fields (i.e. actors may dance, dancers may sing). “I have no borders,” Kalinka tells me. Another pillar of Honey and Dust’s work is process; the work is always evolving and changing, even in front of a live audience. This is fitting for eu.genus, a piece about family, genetics, history, and the process of becoming human. As the artists create work—be it music, dance, or sculpture— in front of the audience, they relate it to their own family histories. The audience, sitting on the stage of the Great Hall of the Andrej Bagar Theatre, which is now a live atelier, is invited to enter the playing space and explore the art before and after the performance. Though there is no linear narrative to the text, there is a clear structure and series of cumulative events. It is a story told in bodies and relationships. The collage-like nature of these events and actions happening simultaneously at times encourages the audience to choose where they focus. “You as audience are choosing this dramaturgy,” says dramaturg and dancer Milan Kozánek.

an actor in mid-air

eu.genus. Libretto and direction by Andrej Kalinka. Produced by Honey and Dust. Photo by Ctibor Bachratý.

Slovakia: Past, Present, and Future?

Theatre in Slovakia, as well as the country itself, seems at a crossroads. The artists I spoke with describe a young country that, at only thirty years old, is still transitioning out of the communist mindset and building a history. Galdík believes that institutions can help show the way.

“You need a strong institution people can trust,” he says. “[Bratislava Puppet Theatre] is a public institution and it’s very important we are aware of that. I really think that it’s connected to my work. We talk to children.” For Kalinka, the lack of history and understanding is detrimental to the creation of new work. “It’s not about nationality, it’s about your context,” he says. “You have to understand or feel your identity and then you can bring something new. When you are not clear in your history you don’t know what to offer today.”

Rázusová seems patient. “We don’t have to have some big expectations to be experimental and cool and new,” she says. “There are so many talented people throughout the country but I think we need time.” Kalinka agrees, adding with a touch of rueful irony: “At this moment it’s the car without the driver, no plan, no schedule, because we don’t know the direction. But thirty years is a short time to change our minds, so I hope, maybe step by step after two hundred years, there will be a vision.”

Though Slovakia may still be a country in search of an identity, the International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra continues to provide a platform for its artists to not only connect with the international community, but to challenge themselves and their audiences as they become the country they are meant to be.

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