The Performant: (Somewhat) lost in translation

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Csaba Hernadi, involing Maria Lukacs
PHOTO BY NICOLE GLUCKSTERN

"Infinite Closeness" was a little ways off

Reminiscent of Mission parlor-art space The Red Poppy Art House, Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley, upon entrance, is a lot like entering the living room of an artsy friend. Comfortably mismatched chairs and a few scattered cushions, a kitchenette behind the stage curtains, inviting visitors to endless cups of tea, hardwood floors gleaming below a strand of primitive lighting instruments.

Just four years old as a venue, the Arthouse nonetheless gives off the vibe of a place that’s been around forever, lurking just below the radar, if not actually under the ground (unlike La Val’s Subterranean, it’s actually located at street level). In short, it’s about time I got around to attending an event there.

The piece, “Infinite Closeness” is a solo offering of Hungarian performer Csaba Hernadi, an entirely mimed evocation of the poetess Mari Lukacs, whose life spanned the horrors of the Holocaust, the communist regime, and the usual traumas and blessings of a life lived for poetry.

The stage is set with a few scattered props: couch, table, coat-rack, a cracked and legless mannequin. Some pieces such as a dressmaker’s dummy and what appears to be a kneeling refugee from a carousel menagerie lurk in unclaimed corners of the stage, perhaps conjuring the crowded edges of a mind in turmoil. Truthfully it’s not entirely clear what purpose they serve, which is presumably the point.

Clad in a modest high-collared blouse of cream and long black skirt that hangs just above unwomanly large bare feet, Hernadi “awakens” on his couch as a swell of sound, murmur and rushing wind, moves him forward. Stiffly seated at a “dressing table,” Hernadi as Lukacs brushes his/her hair and then takes up an onion, peels it, and presses it abruptly to his/her eyes, a visceral pantomime of grief.

Or at least that’s what it appears to be. Even more enigmatic than the unfamiliar strains of Hungarian would be are the broad strokes of silence that shield the piece from easy interpretation. My trusty theatre-companion V. gets restless. “There should be subtitles” he mutters near the end, though as the piece is silent, maybe he means inter-titles. I know what he means, though. Context is everything.

For just as art interprets us, so do we interpret art. And while we are by no means unwilling to follow Harnadi’s Lukacs’ down the various rabbit holes that turbulent times pulled her down throughout the years, lacking any prior knowledge of her biography makes extrapolating it from the raw movement onstage a challenge. Even the presence of a blurb in a program or a single line of her poetry would have served to round out our interpretation of the event in a way that Hernadi’s tender dances with the broken mannequin and an empty suit jacket don’t quite manage.

And while his reverence for his subject is evident and moving, ultimately the focus of the piece remains on him rather than her, as he is in the room with us in a way she is never quite allowed. Still, I’m grateful to Hernadi, and by extension Lukacs, for bringing me to The Subterranean Arthouse at last. I’ll be sure to not let another four year go by before I return.      

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