Eszter Balint's American Dream Neo-punk Hungarian refugee brings talents to Briar Street Theater;
by Hedy Weiss
Chicago Sun - Times. Chicago, Ill.:
May 15, 1986. pg. 73
You may have seen actress Eszter Balint in an offbeat film called "Stranger Than Paradise," when it enjoyed something of a cult following here last year. Balint played Eva, the charmingly literal, deadpan 16-year-old who arrives in New York from Budapest en route to live with her Aunt Lottie in Cleveland. Few have abandoned themselves to the American dream in quite the distinctive neo-punk refugee style of Eva. The film was not autobiographical, but it had a thread of connection to Balint's life, as her delicately Hungarian-accented English reveals.
The 20-year-old actress is in Chicago this week to star in "Dreamland Burns," the most recent production of Squat Theater, the experimental New York-based company from Hungary. "Dreamland" opens tonight at the Briar Street Theater and runs through Saturday.
Squat Theater was exiled from its homeland in 1976, when Balint was just 10 years old. The independently supported group had angered Hungarian authorities, who banned it from performing in 1972 (though it continued to present plays in private homes) and began confiscating the members' passports in 1973, after they participated in a theater festival in Poland without official sanction. Before moving to New York in 1977, the actors spent a year as theatrical vagabonds in Holland, France and England, where they often performed in unwanted or unused spaces. A friend's comment about their squatter status led them to adopt their name.
Balint laughed when asked what it means to be an exile. "I've been here for 10 years," she said, her eyes sparkling with a mix of innocence and experience. "New York is my home. I learned English very quickly when I got here, and I've never felt like an immigrant. Maybe it's different if you're older and you've already lived.
"I went back to Hungary several years ago to visit my grandparents, and my main impression was that everything looked so small. The streets and buildings and their apartment were about one-third the size they had been in my memory," she said.
Dressed in black slacks and jacket, with a sunny yellow scarf draped around her neck, Balint looked like a hip urban high school girl as she puffed on a cigarette. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, exposing her wide cheekbones and puckish grin.
In "Dreamland Burns," she plays a young woman who has just moved into her own apartment. That part of the story is told in a 30-minute film that ends as she falls asleep and begins to dream. The live portion of the show is actually the dream sequence, in which she encounters a series of bizarre characters in very mundane situations. Reality and illusion are given some complex twists along the way, however, through an array of multimedia tricks. (Balint created the musical score for the show - a mix of operatic overtures by Wagner and "spare, funky, electronic-type sounds.")
The play, which was written and directed (in collaboration with the ensemble) by Balint's father, Stephan Balint, bears some resemblance to real life. Until last summer, when they lost the lease on their storefront theater on West 23rd Street in New York, members of Squat lived "behind the store." Now the actress has a place "way downtown, below Wall Street," but in typical Manhattanite fashion, she said she's searching for the right apartment.
"We never lived as a commune," Bal-int said, wrinkling her nose with a hint of disgust. "We've always been misunderstood in that way. We just lived in the same building because it was more practical; it made it easier to do our work."
Balint has never had formal acting training. "I did some small parts when I was 8 or 9, but I wasn't even conscious that it was acting. When I was 13, I had a fairly large role in "Andy Warhol's Last Love (the ritualistic multimedia work in which a film of the Warhol character riding a horse up to the door of the theater turns into "reality as the actor appears on stage).
"The Warhol piece, the first work that Squat made in America, was strongly influenced by impressions of New York. But I really didn't know what I was doing in it - which was the whole point - because I was playing a child portraying a grownup.
"It wasn't until I did the movie, `Stranger Than Paradise,' that I understood anything about acting. I began working on the film when I was 16, at the invitation of the director, Jim Jarmusch, who I had known for a while. He'd been given some beautiful film stock by his friend (filmmaker) Wim Wenders - but only enough for a 30-minute film. We didn't finish it until two years later.
"I was surprised by its success," Balint said, "but I think I understand its appeal. It was just about real people - a slice of life - and it had been a long time since anyone showed that. There's so much s - - - being made."
Balint, who attended the Professional Children's School, recently began taking technical courses in filmmaking at New York University. "My real interest is in film - not theater. I want to direct," she confessed. "I rarely go to the theater because I don't really like it that much. And what is there to see? Broadway - or the other thing - which is even worse. I think Squat's shows are more like movies than theater. At least that's what we're trying to achieve. Movies really involve the audience - you forget where you are. In most theater, there's always a self-consciousness."
Squat acquired a slightly scandalous reputation during its decade in New York. Working in a storefront theater, its most innovative technique was using the street as the free-form backdrop to the action on stage. ("Dreamland" is the first work designed for a traditional proscenium theater.) Balint admitted it was pretty scary that evening in 1982 when real cops handcuffed (at gunpoint) two actors engaged in a mock gun battle on the street, as part of the production, "Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free."
"I never think of what we do in terms of shock value or any of the political cliches of the 1960s and '70s," Balint said. "After all, not very much is shocking anymore. Our theater is more about catching someone off guard for a moment - and creating a fun surprise for the audience."
What's next for Eszter Balint? "Something great," she said. "If it's Hollywood - and it's great - that would be OK. But it probably won't be TV. Working on an episode of `Miami Vice' was not a great experience." In the meantime, the actress said, "I have to get more disciplined."
Peter Berg and Eszter Balint in a scene from Squat Theater's production of "Dreamland Burns," playing through Saturday at the Briar Street Theater.