From Shakespeare troupes to ones focused on new plays, it’s a common assumption in contemporary theater that the art form should speak to the times.
Sometimes that relevance can get a little too close for comfort.
When ArtsEmerson co-artistic director David Dower saw “Our Secrets” in Hungary in 2015, the artists there were rattled by prime minister Viktor Orbán’s recent state of the nation address, in which he called multiculturalism a “delusion” that would turn his nation into a “refugee camp.” “Christian culture,” the rightist leader insisted, was “perhaps the only natural foundation” for European societies.
“The artists there were in a complete state of shock at how much had changed, so fast. [‘Our Secrets’] to them was speaking to a present trauma that I didn’t feel. I saw it on them but I didn’t feel it,” Dower recalls. “I had no idea it was going to be scarily relevant.”
Written by prolific Hungarian theater-maker Béla Pintér and performed by his company, “Our Secrets” plays at the Paramount Center for four days beginning Jan. 19. It’s a story of government surveillance in Cold War-era Hungary, as seen in its covert infiltration of a folk dance club.
It comes to Boston after a presidential election in which the winning candidate made much political hay from private emails that the US intelligence community says were hacked under the auspices of the Russian government. Dower says the anxieties expressed in the play are all the more pressing.
“Even just the way that we saw public figures sort of outed through their personal e-mails, that level of vulnerability was pretty new to me — and it’s not new to them,” Dower said of those who lived in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
Performed with the help of live music and dance, “Our Secrets” concerns a group of amateur folk dancers, one of whom is coerced by a government agent to inform on his friends. “The secret service in Hungary really embittered the life of everyone living under it. They blackmailed people,” Pintér says, through a translator on a Skype call. “It could be their enemies but it could also be friends, it could be their family members that they were compelled to report to the authorities. There wasn’t an organization, there wasn’t a family, in which there wasn’t a member who was spying.”
But the play is no simple tale of good people compromised by shady forces. Pintér complicates things by not making the vulnerability of the dancer in question, say, dissident political views or homosexuality, but rather, pedophilia.
“The main character of this play is a very demonic figure, a pedophile, but he lives with the secret of his sexuality and has to be very careful. It’s like he’s always walking on thin ice,” Pintér says. “Yet there are certain points where [the audience] can empathize with this character, where they can even emotionally feel the torture he is going through.”
Pintér’s visit to Boston is part of his company’s first American tour since 2009, when his anti-opera “Peasant Opera” got good notices at Lincoln Center Festival. “Our Secrets” is scheduled to follow up the Boston performances with a run at New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center.
In a press release, Mikhail Baryshnikov cited the show’s “staggering resonance with today’s global climate.” But Pintér says he “doesn’t care to speak about the state of surveillance now.” He’s more concerned with the specifics of Hungarian government repression in the 1980s, and the fact that a list of secret informants from those days has not been released.
“The point and message of this play is that nowadays in the conservative, Christian-minded government, there are people who were active in the secret service under Communism and their activities have yet to be revealed because the government is keeping it secret,” he says.
“Our Secrets” will be performed in Hungarian, with English supertitles projected. Last season ArtsEmerson also featured plays performed in Polish, Russian, and Spanish.
Though the language barrier necessarily creates a certain distance between the performers and the audience, Dower says he hopes the piece benefits from added force.
“The experience of seeing virtuosic performers in their native tongue, in their native culture — there’s a level of both depth and also power that is derived from all that authenticity,” Dower says.
Pintér notes that “Our Secrets” concerns a specific place and time with which American audiences may be unfamiliar. “Yet when Americans watch the play here in Hungary, they’ve really responded to it and said what an affecting piece this is,” he says. “So maybe out of this very specific phenomenon there are the ingredients of something that can have a universal message.”
For better or worse.
Production by Béla Pintér and Company. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston. Tickets: $10-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.