She Who Once Was.. by Peter Halasz



She Who Once Was the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife

The Performing Garage
33 Wooster Street, SoHo, Manhattan
The New York Times
June 18, 1992, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
Section C; Page 15; Column 3; Cultural Desk

Written and directed by Peter Halasz and Seth Tillett, with "The Upper Road," "The Lower Road" and "The Clearing" by Peter Langer; music by Johann Strauss; producer, Laura Barnett; sound and lighting design, Ruud van der Akker. Presented by the Performing Garage.

Cora Fisher, Peter Halasz, Agnes Santha and Seth Tillett.

A life so grim it becomes hilarious and finally comforting unfolds in "She Who Once Was the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife" by Peter Halasz and Seth Tillett. People familiar with the work of Mr. Halasz, the Hungarian-born director, actor and founder of Squat Theater and Love Theater, always expect bizarre, exquisitely imagined plays from him. But he has never more magically transformed his sometimes cruel vision into affectionate understanding than in this startling memoir of his Hungarian grandmother (played by himself).

This ancient woman, with one leg shorter than the other, is a petrified centenarian in a world intent on knocking her down, tripping her, collapsing on her and deluding her as she remembers her life in a grimy bedroom and calls out incessantly, cursing or pleading, to her grandson Peter.

It is he (played by Seth Tillett) who sits in front of the stage writing her life story, occasionally mocking her, ordering characters onstage to enact only his version of her history, and growing ever more amusingly annoyed as the story drifts away from him.

The grandmother's memories are spoken in often haunting words by an elegant young woman (Agnes Santha in the performance I saw) and her own version of her history is read intermittently by a little girl (Cora Fisher) who seems utterly unaware that it is a riotous catalogue of disasters marking the long decline of the grandmother's entire family, along with everyone else in the world.

Mr. Halasz is a comic vision of arthritic vulnerability and triumphant will power as he totters and falls about the room, wrestles armchairs and lamps to the floor, gloats over a pile of plastic shopping bags hoarded for decades, and erects a trembling pyramid of wooden chairs on a table, groaning his way to the top of it so the grandmother can read her diary next to the dim ceiling light.

Only once do all the characters obey Peter, when at the end he orders them to tell the story again, only "with speed"; they dance a strange, awkward little ballet that, without a word, changes this tattered tale into a joyous parable about life itself. It prepares the audience for a slyly humorous kaddish Mr. Halasz sings as he tries with one gloved hand to smother the flames of a fistful of candles in the other hand; the stubborn survival of the last little light makes one want to cheer. Few people in theater now can manipulate simple images with so much wizardry, or make them so unforgettable.

Copyright The New York Times 1992


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