If midway through "Screenplay," the Hungarian drama receiving its American premiere at Arena Stage, you begin to feel that you are negotiating a labyrinth and, what's more, that the corridors keep shifting on you, don't blame yourself for confusing north with south or for seeing exits where, in fact, there are none. I suspect you will be reacting precisely the way the late playwright Istvan Orkeny intended.
Orkeny's play illustrates--with a fair degree of hallucination and dread--the way Communist regimes tailor history to the moment's needs, a process by which yesterday's hero becomes today's traitor, a deed of courage is deemed an act of ignominy, and a fearful populace discovers it is standing on quicksand.
Completed in 1980 shortly before Orkeny's death, "Screenplay" is neither as accessible nor as mordantly entertaining as his earlier plays, "The Tot Family" and "Catsplay," which Arena also introduced to this country. Perhaps because Orkeny was writing this time about politically "sensitive" matters, it also tends to be dramatically convoluted. It's as if the playwright were searching for a way to get around the powers that be with what strikes American eyes, at least, as a fierce indictment of the Communist regime in Hungary. By the same token, this is a work of far greater intellectual depth than its predecessors, and, as directed by Zelda Fichandler, it emerges as a distinct challenge to the mind and a prod to the conscience.
The title refers to the trumped-up "screenplay" or "show" trials of Eastern Europe in the 1950s, those travesties that required the accused to perform elaborate confessions scripted by the prosecution itself. In Orkeny's drama, a certain Barabas--once a revolutionary hero, "the apple of a nation's eye" and now a suave ambassador to France--is summoned back to Budapest for a special one-time-only performance in the Great Circus of the Capital.
The "performance" turns out to be Barabas' trial for treason, and it is conducted by a maestro in red tails and top hat, his blond assistant and various friends out of Barabas' life, who perform their acts of punishment and penance in the center ring amid a tangle of ladders and ropes. The circus is an obvious metaphor for political backflips and judicial contortions, but Orkeny doesn't leave it at that.
The maestro, played with pearly toothed panache by John Seitz, is a prodigy of hypnosis. Under his spell, nonsmokers take greedily to the weed and hard-core drinkers gag on fine brandy, while the innocent suddenly find within themselves pockets of uncertainty and guilt. The maestro can make evidence appear where seconds before there was none, and under his bidding, time goes backward and forward like a pendulum. Indeed, one of the initial confusions of "Screenplay" is that it deals concurrently with three periods of recent Hungarian history: the resistance movement against Hitler during World War II; the late 1940s, when the Hungarian Communist Party reached heights of oppressiveness; and the brief flowering of freedom after the 1956 uprising.
In "Screenplay," Barabas' contributions to history, both past and future, are coming under revision and judgment. And if you are never certain of the role he played or the machinations he may or may not have spawned, neither is Barabas. Orkeny's precise historical allusions are largely lost on an American audience, but his greater point is not: There is no Truth in this society, merely a succession of temporary, continually revised truths. In such a climate a man cannot only be led to doubt others, he can be forced to doubt himself. "I only know what happened to me," confides one of Barabas' comrades, "but if you multiply this by 10 million, you will no longer ask who is right and who is wrong . . . The country belongs to the power-hungry, the eavesdroppers, the talebearers, the anonymous informers . . ."
Yet, if it were just that--a malevolent regime, manipulating the helpless--"Screenplay" would somehow be less unsettling than it is. But man, Orkeny suggests, has within him an ambivalence that invites such manipulations. Even when we are innocent, we are fundamentally creatures of guilt and capitulation. As Stanley Anderson plays Barabas, which is deftly indeed, the passage from confidence to befuddlement to resignation is sharp and distressing. In keeping with the circus motif, a firing squad eventually shoots him down from a trapeze. He lurches to the ground, which opens up and swallows the body. His presence has been wiped from the earth and no one even says amen.
At moments like these, "Screenplay" has a Kafkaesque theatricality, considerably abetted by the poisonous greens and ironic pinks that lighting designer Arden Fingerhut casts over the stage. Karl Eigsti's circus set, with an oversized alligator, an ape and a bear suspended in the void, seems to have sprung from a bad dream, and Fichandler further accentuates the surrealism by occasionally hoisting her performers into the air on swings, where they defy both gravity and logic, or having them scuttle up ladders seemingly without end. Still, these tactics do not entirely distract from the fact that "Screenplay" is a hard, elliptical piece of dramaturgy, a theatrical Rubik's Cube that is apt to frustrate those with a low tolerance for puzzles.
As relatives and former comrades in the revolutionary struggle, the supporting cast is vivid with a kind of seedy desperation. I especially liked Regina David, both a frump and a fury, as a mother whose son has been whisked away to oblivion, and Frank Maraden, once a virtuoso on the trumpet, here reduced to a sorry circus usher in white face, because art and artists are suspect in this regime.
Like everyone in the audience, they are all trying to piece together the story of Barabas. But it's a monstrously difficult undertaking. As Orkeny notes, what people say is not always what they believe. What they believe is not necessarily what they will confess. And somewhere in the midst of what they say, believe and confess, there is what really happened. And that may be all but unknowable.
SCREENPLAY. By Istvan Orkeny. Adapted by Gitta Honegger with Zelda Fichandler. Directed by Zelda Fichandler; sets, Karl Eigsti; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Arden Fingerhut; music, Richard Peaslee and Bruce Coughlin. With Joan MacIntosh, Frank Maraden, Stanley Anderson, Terrence Currier, Mark Hammer, Laura Hicks, Regina David, John Seitz, Frances Chaney. At Arena Stage through March 13.