Steven Rattazzi

Pour Out Thy Wrath

Review of Seder, Hartford Stage

In 2002, the “House of Terror” museum opened in an infamous building at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, a public documentation of the tortures and murders that happened there, under the Nazis until 1944, and under the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) until the end of the 1980s. In a world premiere at Hartford Stage directed by Elizabeth Williamson, Sarah Gancher’s Seder dramatizes the changes in Hungary through the medium of a particular family claiming its Jewish identity, suppressed under the Soviets, by celebrating Passover for the first time.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Such a ritual, we might imagine, would be a way of bringing the family together and healing whatever divides remain. That’s the intention of Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), the sweet daughter in a bitter family, who invites her friend, David (Steven Rattazzi, in a subtly comic performance), to lead her, her cynical brother Laci (Dustin Ingram), their estranged sister Judit (Birgit Huppuch), and their mother Erzsike (Mia Dillon) in the meal, the prayers, the four cups of wine, and the symbolic meanings.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

As the matriarch wanting to find common ground with daughter Judit, Mia Dillon’s Erzsike commands an uneasy sympathy. The tense scenes in 2002 are coupled with flashbacks that show Erzsike as a young woman working as a secretary at 60 Andrássy. She is coerced into a sexual relationship with Attila (Jeremy Webb), one of the commanders in the HCP, who arranges her marriage with Tamás (Liam Craig), the man the children knew as their father. We need this background because one of the great divides in this family is that Judit is on the board at the House of Terror museum where her mother’s face is on “the Wall of Murderers” as one who served in the hated regime.

The play is set in a sprawling apartment with living room, dining room, kitchen, designed as open spaces with the baleful presence of the Wall of Murderers hovering visibly throughout the drama. The play opens with Erzsike coming face-to-face with her photo on the wall, and much of the play will be concerned with her coming to grips with her past. As Erzsike, Dillon turns in a finely calibrated performance. She’s anything but a sentimental woman, in 2002, and, in her youth, was the innocent she would like her family to see her as. Dillon plays both ages winningly—much as she did when playing a mature woman and an 8-year-old boy in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 at Hartford Stage, also directed by Williamson, last season.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

What comes out in Gancher’s fraught, emotionally powerful and important play, is the toll on ordinary lives of extraordinarily unpleasant political realities. The drama explodes several times, yet maintains the believable rhythm of a domestic gathering where strong words are followed by efforts at reconciliation. The humor of the situation is largely maintained by David’s well-meaning focus on the matter at hand—the Seder—and by Laci’s deadpan comments. The main events feature an entertaining collection of voices and agendas, and each cast member contributes significantly to the 2002 scenes. In the past, Webb’s Attila brandishes power in intimacy to chilling effect, while Craig’s Tamás is a dutiful performance in an underwritten role. The scene when we see the parting between husband and wife—one of the grievances Judit lays on her mother—is one of the few where the play’s pacing suffers.

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Key to the political situation is how those who seize power vilify those in power before them, a point that Erzsike has enough historical overview to see. At the heart of the human story is a vindictive battle for historical vindication that pits Judit against Erzsike, whose sins as mother and wife—in Judit’s view—share common cause with her generation’s political hypocrisy, enjoying the fall of Communism without having to own their complicity with its ruthless rule. There is much airing of grief, and Birgit Huppuch gives a thoroughly involving performance as Judit. Full of spite, anger, misery, and, finally, tears that feel fully earned, Judit works through righteous indignation and a daughter’s sense of betrayal to cathartic effect.

Probing, gripping, and touching, Seder provides a lively meal as the basis for a family drama and takes full dramatic advantage of the insight that the personal is political. Though such may not be so literally the case in most families, the question of allegiances and former complicity is very much an issue for many. The benefits and the blame of holding power go hand in hand in Sarah Gancher’s sharp play.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)



By Sarah Gancher
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Script Consultant: Jocelyn Clarke; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp; Assistant Stage Manager: Merrick A. B. Williams

Cast: Liam Craig, Mia Dillon, Birgit Huppuch, Dustin Ingram, Steven Rattazzi, Julia Sirna-Frest, Jeremy Webb

Hartford Stage
October 19-November 12, 2017

Off With Their Heads

Is it possible to write a review of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, now playing at the Yale Rep in a production directed by Rebecca Taichman, without mentioning the 99% or making some comment situating the play within the time of OWS unrest and the like?  Probably not, so I’m glad I got that out of the way. It’s a timely play, then, yes?  Mais oui et non.  Adjmi’s Marie (Marin Ireland) speaks like a contemporary airhead, certainly (and amusingly), but the play follows the timeline of the destruction of the reign of Louis VI closely, and peppers its dialogue with jibes au courant for the 1780s—name-dropping Rousseau, and joking about oaths in tennis courts, and taking potshots at that novel experiment in America: “common people can’t take care of themselves.  Democracy can’t work.”  We might take to heart the fate of a patron saint of the privileged as a send-up of what might befall those too high to fall, but Marie Antoinette isn’t really about cautionary catharsis.  And anyway, among historical moralists, for every leftist railing against the empowered, there’s a rightist reminding us of how chaotic and blood-thirsty the reign of “the people” is.  No morals where none intended, to paraphrase Beckett.

OK, so the play’s not quite political allegory, and it’s not quite historical drama, nor even quite historical fantasy.  It’s far too confectionery to want to give us a sense of lived history, but it does seem to have something on its mind, other than laughs, giddy women (Ireland, Hannah Cabell, Polly Lee) with 3-foot-tall wigs on their heads, a king (Steven Rattazzi) who reminded me of Abbott’s little buddy Costello and who likes to play with clocks, and a queen in a Bo-Peep outfit who converses with a sheep (David Greenspan).  Adjmi seems most interested in how a teenaged twit—Marie was married off by her mother at age 14—became the emblem of aristocratic indifference and noblesse indulge.  In his hands, Marie’s tale is the story of how a fashion queen became a scourge—a bit like how, in our day, every pop diva eventually gets dissed—while remaining, y’know, classic and iconic.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set, initially, is all bright colors and shine, with the characters positioned in it as if sitting ducks in an arcade. There are props to prop-up an illusion of surroundings, but this is a streamlined fantasy of court life as bodies in space, with very precise marks to hit.  Gabriel Berry’s costumes play in a lively space between period fashions and what our era might do with them, and, in the early going, the play has the feel of a lively burlesque of the eighteenth century.  Once Marie begins conscientiously to scrimp a bit on egregious ostentation, things get more straitened—and part of the drama is to watch her go from the absurd wigs to having her actual hair—turned white—shorn from her head by a Guard (Brian Wiles, great at steely contempt).

Such gestures are where most of the drama occurs, along with wonderful touches like an explosion of sound (Matt Hubbs, sound design) and fake dirt that expresses to visceral effect the loss of aristocratic status once the revolution comes, and a very powerful moment of echoing laughter from Louis, Marie and their son (Ashton Woretz) that speaks eloquently about the humanity of even the most detestable tyrant.  Here, the rulers aren’t detestable so much as clueless, which helps to pump some pathos into them, but, in the end, it also flattens them a bit too much into caricatures.  When Marie says, “Sometimes I feel like a game that other people play but without me,” it rings true—in part because the play plays her that way too, kind of like “Gidget Goes Regal.”

The great asset of this show—besides its look and sound—is Marin Ireland: her Marie is so vapidly winning or winningly vapid you hope to protect her from unsettling lessons about reality, and you do begin to feel something for someone who has to live such a relentlessly scrutinized life, even if her whining about it gets old.  Ireland’s performance scores so often on comic timing you’re never quite sure if you’re laughing at her or with her.  And isn’t that how it is with the upper-class: we know we can’t beat ‘em or join ‘em, so let’s be amused by them.  When things turn bleak, we’re not exactly going to embrace the likes of the Sauces (Fred Arsenault and Hannah Cabell), two rustics who grab the Royals on their bid for freedom, nor side much with a Guard who spits in his ex-sovereign’s face. Or are we?

That’s the sticking point of the play, really.  Its vignettes start to feel like the clips in a reality TV show, though instead of a make-over toward beauty, power and prestige, this one is going in the opposite direction—toward state-mandated death.  And we’re along for the ride, deciding at which point to disengage.  As the sheep (and this play could use more David Greenspan) says to Marie in a very chilling moment: “Step carefully.”


And if that tsunami of dirt makes you think of the famous line “aprés moi, le déluge,” often attributed to Louis’s dad, Louis XV, seeing the show soon after Hurricane Sandy might make the play’s “before and after” seem even closer to home.  C’est la vie, ma chérie, it goes to show you never can tell.


Marie Antoinette By David Adjmi Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Choreographer: Karole Armitage; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Gabriel Berry; Christopher Akerlind: Lighting Designer; Matt Hubbs: Sound Designer; Matt Acheson: Puppet Designer; Jane Guyer Fujita: Voice Coach; J. David Brimmer: Fight Director; Tara Rubin Casting: Casting Director; Amanda Spooner: Stage Manager

Yale Repertory Theatre October 26-November 17, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Yale Repertory Theatre