BWW Review: SEDER at Hartford Stage
Why is tonight different than all other nights? A question that is asked around the tables of Jewish households on Passover around the world every year. It is a question that causes those gathered to consider the suffering of their ancestors in Egypt, at the hand of Pharoah and to consider the "little Pharoahs" in their own lives. This question is asked for the first time by one family wrought with secrets, guilt and a need for answers in the world premiere of Sarah Gancher's SEDER at Hartford Stage.
Based on a true story, SEDER centers around Erzsike (Mia Dillon) a former secretary with the Hungarian KGB who is reluctantly hosting, at her daughter Margit's (Julia Sirna-Frist) encouraging, the family's first Passover seder. The evening is clouded by the revelation that Erzsike's photograph has been hung on the "Wall of Murderers" at the "House of Terror" museum located in the building that housed the Nazi party in Budapest in WWII and the Hungarian KGB (The AVO) during the cold war. The basement at 60 Andrassy was where numerous people were tortured and killed, first by the Nazis, then by the AVO. It was in this building that Erzsike worked and which creates the central conflict for the evening. In addition to Erszike and Margit, also seated around the seder table are Margit's brother, Laci (Dustin Ingram), her American boyfriend David (Steven Rattazzi) and her estranged sister Judit (Birgit Huppuch). Judit's presence at the seder, and the fact that she has many secrets about her employment and her aspirations causes conflict and consternation throughout the evening. Through visceral vignettes, the audience is also introduced to Attila (Jeremy Webb), Erzsike's former boss and lover who committed many of the atrocities in question, and Tamas (Liam Craig), her, now deceased, husband. Through the dialogue around the table, the characters attempt to get through their first-ever seder dinner, led by American visitor David, played with even-keeled temper by Mr. Rattazzi. While David tries to instruct the family on the traditions of the evening, secrets are revealed, past transgressions exposed and words exchanged. In the end, the question of guilt and complicity remains and hangs over the room like a dark cloud.
SEDER is an interesting character study of blame and responsibility. Ms. Dillon's Erzsike is stubborn yet broken and she masterfully switches from the rough and bitter woman she is today to the young woman (in flashback) simply trying to change her own fate. Her exchanges with Ms. Huppuch's Judit are fiery and full of defensive anger. Ms. Huppuch's Judit is equally terse, but with an indignant judgement gained from the ability to weigh in on history without living it personally. Mr. Rattazzi's David does his best to keep the night moving forward, spouting background on the reasons for the Passover practices while trying to play armchair therapist for the broken family. Mr. Ingram's Laci is often the calmest and most indifferent, though it is seemingly due to his resignation to his fate and the fate of his country. Margit, as played by Ms. Sirna-Frest is optimistic to a fault as she tries to get the family to take "one step" towards healing the rift that exists there. She and David provide some much needed levity at times, but overall the script is quite confrontational and tense.
With SEDER, Sarah Gancher not only educates the audience on the not-so-well known activities of the AVO in Hungary (at least to your average American) but does so in a way that allows one to contemplate the existential questions being raised on stage. She has created characters that, while flawed, feel familiar and real and that do their best to resolve years of anger and hurt in one evening. Elizabeth Williamson's direction is solid and strong, building up the tension throughout the evening and delivering Ms. Gancher's story in a way that captivates and challenges. Some very interesting choices (including David's constant misuse of Hungarian vowel sounds) remind the audience of the setting in a simple yet effective way. Nick Vaughan's set serves the story well, especially the chilling ending featuring the "Wall of Murderers."
Overall, Hartford Stage's production of Sarah Gancher's SEDER is thoughtful and intense, yet intensely satisfying. It does so well what theatre is meant to do - inspire, question, instruct and elevate, and deftly illustrates that even when a subject is unfamiliar (whether the seder tradition or Hungarian history) there is always something to be learned from the past, even if that past is difficult to understand or reconcile.
SEDER runs at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through November 12th. Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Weekly schedules vary. For more information call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org
Top Photo: The cast of SEDER