Heller Theatre's production of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts seems like a few different shows in one, as if various and conflicting directorial visions guided the rehearsal process. As a result, some of the production's elements agree with each other and others clash. It makes for a jarring evening at the theater. Then again, Ibsen never intended his plays to soothe.
Critics recognize Ibsen, along with Anton Chekhov, as the father of modern theatre. More to the point, they are the fathers of psychological realism on the stage. Ibsen's plays hinge upon dramatic revelations that provide the audience with a clear window into his characters' minds, rendering their philosophies, and therefore their actions, transparent.
Ghosts takes place in late 19th-century Denmark, and portrays a day in the life of the Alving family that proves climactic and fateful for everyone involved. Oswald Alving (Austin Gillespie), son of and heir to his father's great fortune and reputation, has returned to his childhood home after several years abroad. His mother, Helene (Noel Fairbrothers), has spent the months since her husband's death dedicating an orphanage to the memory of the noble patriarch. The dedication ceremony has been planned for the following day, and at this late hour Helene decides it is time to reveal her husband's terrible secret. This revelation threatens to destroy everyone complicit in its scandal.
During these short urgent hours, each character makes crucial decisions, which Ibsen elucidates through dialogue. The great challenge of Ibsen, for any actor reinterpreting his work, is to take that dialogue and internalize it. The audience could understand, on an intellectual level, each character's motivations simply by reading the text, but an actor who has internalized that text and then lives it will, in turn, allow the audience access to the play's emotional depths.
The actors of Heller Theatre's Ghosts have, to some degree, accomplished that task. They have erected some wonderfully delicate moments, but because there are multiple visions pulling in different directions, those moments cannot not stand for long. The emotional build crumples, forcing the actors to raise it again and again. A single coherent vision for this play would have eased their burden.
Heller Theatre and director Whitson Hanna have chosen Lanford Wilson's recent translation over other more traditional versions. Wilson updates much of the language of earlier translations. For instance, when Helene mentions her husband's licentiousness to Reverend Manders (Charles D. Whitson), he makes an excuse for the late Mr. Alving. In William Archer's original translation, he calls it "levity" on Mr. Alving's part, but in Wilson's translation it is a "joke."
The pre-show music prepares us for this modernization. The arrangement is classical but the instruments themselves are synthesized.
The pop-opera vocals have no place in Ibsen's time period, either, but put the audience in mind of their own, contemporary time.
Similarly, the set design tends toward the abstract rather than the exact. Hanna and Starr Hardgrove, co-set designers, have chosen curtains instead of doors. The convention works well. The production implicitly asks the audience to accept that characters cannot hear each other through these "doors," and it is easy to comply. Even better, the curtains are light, almost like gossamer, putting spectators in the mind of the titular ghosts. Everything is worn, too, and tattered, as if the Alving family lives in a haunted house.
Most provocatively, dead tree branches have been affixed all over the set's three walls. These branches, for Tulsans, stir images of last December's destructive ice storm. Many of the characters comment on the storm that refuses to abate for them, drawing a nice parallel.
The play then starts. Hanna has added an extra-textual moment wherein Oswald and the family's maid, Regina Engstrand (Elaine Montgomery), enter the living room. There, she performs something like a lap dance for him, dropping a handkerchief and bending at the waist to pick it up while he sits, close by, in a chair. Anachronistic music accompanies this lap dance, a pop tune that one expects to hear in a gentleman's club. They are then interrupted by her father Jakkob (George Nelson), whose entrance marks the play's official, textual beginning.
Walking Through Walls
Inexplicably, the play then shifts to a more traditional style, save for a few heightened light cues. The evocative choices enumerated above are like strings untied, ideas conjured then forgotten. Not that there is something intrinsically wrong with a more traditional style. It is just that one expects stylistic continuity: one or the other. We have curtains instead of doors, but the furniture is antique. Hanna presents a play that is boldly abstract and anachronistic enough to have its lights go up on a 19th-century lap dance, but still feels so rooted in theatrical tradition that the actors are all in period costume, have a full suite of props, and maintain (with at least some fidelity) the integrity of the fourth wall.
On the other hand, some moments intentionally demolish that barrier. Oswald and Helene both have a monologue during which Hanna has chosen to bring down all lights except for a single spotlight on the monologist. Even though the living room has a "window" on the fourth wall, which the actors "peer through" to watch the rain, it is clear that during these specially lit speeches that the character is speaking directly to the audience. At other times, the audience is invisible to them.
These moments, distinguished by the dramatic light shift, would work as an intentional break from the production's usual style if each character was consistent in their treatment of the fourth wall. Nelson, as the bumbling, conniving workman Jakkob, shatters it. His Jakkob is a clown. He plays the part for laughs, which he gets. But he gets them, especially in the second act, by playing his lines and expressions out to the audience, as if all his text were one long aside. He even throws us some winks. It feels as if he has been borrowed from another, zanier play in order to add some levity to this one.
Fairbrothers, on the other hand, walks a much finer line. She addresses much of her text downstage, through the fourth wall, but when she looks out at the audience one gets the impression she simultaneously looks through us and into us. She has found much through the "window" on the fourth wall to catch her interest: the rain, the orphanage she has commissioned. Even distinct memories seem palpable to her as she gazes through the imaginary glass. She spends so much time looking through it that she too breaks the fourth wall, but her violation of that barrier is much more honest.
She has, in fact, found so much rich life in her character that she seems unfortunately melodramatic in contrast with her acting partners. Gillespie favors a mild, plain-spoken approach to his Oswald. Whitson's Manders is an earnest man of the cloth, but that earnestness masks a vague boredom and irritability, as if he would rather be anywhere else than this house. That's understandable, of course; this evening proves destructively scandalous, but at the same time it is difficult to see why Whitson's Manders sticks around as long as he does. It is not a strong choice.
Neither is his stammer. (I intend the comment as a critique of an acting choice, not as a personal insult. My apologies, of course, if the actor himself has a stutter.) It would be another matter if Manders stammered in moments of high anxiety or extreme earnestness, but instead it is constant. It grates the ears.
Other actors make odd choices with their speech as well. Sometimes Nelson speaks in an American South dialect, and at other times seems to have a slight Irish brogue. Gillespie sounds like someone from an urban America city, as does Montgomery. Whitson and Fairbrothers both round their vowels more broadly than their acting partners, Fairbrothers especially, making them sound as if they could be from different regions of England.
All these stylistic choices are small, taken by themselves, but they add up. These actors are on the same stage, but for the most part seem as if they're in different productions of Ghosts.
It is the actor's duty to make bold choices on stage. It is the director's duty to encourage some choices and discourage others. The director must discriminate. His actors have made some bold choices. Hanna has not discriminated amongst them sufficiently, and his play suffers for it.
The post-show music, "Here Comes the Sun," is a delightfully macabre choice given the play's ending, but the irony jars with the stylistic choices preceding it. An ironic, post-modern sensibility bookends this production, but those choices are so lightly enacted and loosely integrated with the rest of the show that, like the lap dance at the play's outset, playing "Here Comes the Sun" just feels like a cheap joke in the end.
It's unfortunate, because the lesson Ibsen wants to impart concerning the tension between personal truth and social appearance is an important, even crucial, lesson. Furthermore, the production's actors have all found some really great moments together. They needed, but lacked, a clear directorial vision to guide them.
Ghosts plays at the Heller Theatre on March 13-15 at 8pm. Tickets are $6 for seniors and college students and $8 for adults. Visit www.hellertheatre.com for more information.
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