Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Relevance of Ibsen

Glendale, May 2—

HERE WE ARE in Glendale again, on a semiannual visit to see theater. The resident repertory company, A Noise Within, is worth the daylong drive; if you time it right, as we try always to do, you can see half the season's offerings in just a few days. There are plenty of cheap motels to stay in, and the food, well, see Eating Every Day.

A Noise Within sticks pretty well to the classics, which doesn't mean necessarily the predictable: these classics include French and Italian plays as well as Russian and Norwegian and, of course, English; and American "classics" extend as far as The Rainmaker (N. Richard Nash), seen last fall (along with Hamlet and Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Oliver Twist. Comments on those plays here).

Last night we saw Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts in a remarkable production. Even after having seen four exceptionally good productions a couple of weeks ago in Ashland, Ghosts was outstanding. The cast was beautifully balanced, exceptionally even, bringing depth and detail to the characters; the physical production was thoughtful and evocative; and Michael Murray's direction was straightforward but aware of the extended layers of the play.

(Murray adapted the text, according to the program; I haven't checked against the standard Archer translation (available online here); but the lines were convincing and the narrative clear.)

The "extended layers" just mentioned seem often to escape reviewers and even actors, to judge by online reviews and the comments of the cast and audience in a productive Q&A following last night's performance. Ghosts is "about" the usual Ibsen catalog: social hypocrisy, the oppression of women, the injustice of social classes, anomie, repression and rebellion. How could such a catalog not be relevant today?

And in Ghosts the narrative is driven by a disease (never specified) inherited by a young artist from his debauched father, dead these ten years: how could that not be relevant?

The genius of the classical theater is its embodiment of universal situations — the human condition — in individuated characters so detailed and interesting as to seem familiar, as if recreations of people we might know personally in our own daily life. Ibsen is often called the father of modern theater but he seems to me a better candidate for one of the last of the classics as well: a transitional figure, in fact, who recognizes the changes of his own time, toward the end of the 19th century — the dawn of Modernism — as a legitimate, understated, collective and invisible character in the cast of every play he wrote. (Peer Gynt excepted, perhaps, as his one truly modern play.)

It's unjust to single out any one actor from this unusually strong cast: they all bring physicality, voice, and intelligence to their roles. Their brilliance, technical and intellectual, individually and in ensemble, reveals the depth and complexity of Ibsen's play. This was an exceptional evening in the theater.

Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed by Michael Murray. Regina: Jaimi Paige; Engstrand: Mark Bramhall; Pastor Manders: Joel Swetow; Mrs. Alving: Deborah Strang; Oswald: J. Todd Adams.
Repeats May 8 and 9 at 8 pm; May 9 at 2 pm.

No comments: