Ghosts — The Play that Returned

By S.E.Barcus

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, April 1 – May 1, 2022

New Translation by Paul Walsh
Directed by Carey Perloff
Original Music Written and Performed by David Coulter

           The Seattle Rep brings back perhaps one of the most esteemed theater directors at “modernizing classics”, Carey Perloff. She was head of New York’s Classic Stage Company for years, and then ran San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater for another 15 years. She returns to Seattle (last here in 2018) as guest director to try and make the “father of realism,” Henrik Ibsen, and his Ghosts, relevant to us in 2022 — literally 140 years after it world premiered in Chicago in 1882 (which Seattle Rep audiences might recall, having seen the world premiere of the play about the play, in 2018…).

           Ohhhh, “Classics.”  How doth one modernize thee?

Photo by Sayed Alamy, from The Rep’s program. With David Strathairn, David Coulter, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Thom Sesma in rehearsal, 2022.

           This particular production premiered in 2019 at Williamstown Theatre Festival with Uma Thurman in the lead.  Big-wig Hollywood stars are one way to “modernize”, or at least make sexy and titillating, and we gots your Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn, here in Seattle, playing the free-thinking Helena Alving and the prudish Pastor Manders, respectively.  So…, check.

           Another way to bring us into the 21st century?  With a new, fresh translation.  This one, by Paul Walsh, promised us it would not feel so stuffy, like the original Victorian translation.  And I think he succeeded; the play does seem to have more of an American vernacular to it.  Although — Ibsen reportedly did not like the English translation of his title.  He would have preferred something closer to the Danish word (the lingua franca of Norway at the time), Gengangere, which is closer to “Revenants”, or “The Ones Who Return”, and would have had the triple entendre of meaning not only people who came back from the dead, such as ghosts, but also the return of memories and events, and perhaps even the return of living people who had left and come back, such as Helena’s “prodigal son,” Oswald Alving.  One wonders if Mr. Walsh was tempted to tamper with the well-known title itself, in his new translation, but backed off?

           Another way to try and modernize an older play?  A groovy, inspired set design, which Dane Laffrey does quite well.  It is complete with modern architecture, with great glass windows (reflecting the actors on stage as if they were … ghosts?  Aaaah!).  And the house had sod and grass on the roof, hipster-wheatgrass-juice-style, to give us that Scandinavian culture/feel.  But then other aspects of the production were more Victorian, from that remote era, such as the furniture (and costumes), all from at least a century ago.  The stacked-up furniture behind the glass was a constant reminder of a cluttered storage room, recalling and symbolizing the mementos / physical memories that most of us keep (at least, if we have not been subjected yet to Marie Kondo’s ‘joy’).

           But overall, none of the above quite drags this play out of the 1880s for me. It is all so much window dressing on a still very old, creaky house, with little actually updated inside of it.  And it’s the important stuff.  I’m not talking the electrical wiring, nor a nice, new updated kitchen, I’m talking about the words.  The language.  The play, itself.  Despite the modern American lingo, that old, stuffy morality still threatens to suffocate these characters and plot, and thus – knowing how it is relevant to modern politics, or not – still threatens to make this seem more of the dreaded “museum piece” to a modern audience.  (Showing that Schopenhauer’s idea — that nothing can be truly effectively translated from one language into another — might not actually be the case, as demonstrated in recent cog-sci news.)

           Actually, the irony is that, while this show uses a realistic style of acting — and while Ibsen himself is known for realism, which by its nature should be the antithesis to the melodrama form of his day — the plot has so many scandalous turns packed within its two hours that the story itself, today anyway, feels much more like a soap opera. 

           The plot involves (and I think there’s a 100-year-rule on ‘spoiler alerts’), in this order:  Mr. Alving was an adulterer and rapist, but his wife Helena stayed with him out of “duty”; he had a son, Oswald, who got syphilis from him (don’t worry about the outdated medical knowledge; or, at least, they don’t imply anywhere that Mrs. Alving had subclinical syphilis, though I suppose she could have); Mr. Alving died, but his memory lives on to haunt everyone; they build an orphanage in his name, but don’t insure it because that would be looked down upon by “the right sorts of people” as not trusting enough in God (like, wtf?!);  the maid, Regina, is the bastard daughter of a prostitute and the adulterer-ghost, Mr. Alving; the syphilitic son falls in love with Regina – who – egads! – turns out to be his half-sister (enter either Luke-and-Leia joke, or the old-school melodramatic gesture, “whoa is me,” here);  the ORPHANAGE burns down, fer chrissakes;  and the young man who is dying asks his mom to give him morphine to euthanize him….

Ibsen, by Henrik Olrik, 1879

           Whew!  …  Like.  Wow.  The writers I have known, who worked and snickered in their TV soap opera writer-rooms as they got paid to dream up some nasty thing or another every day that will befall some character or another?  They have NOTHING on Ibsen.  While he famously had Strindberg’s crazed picture there to spook him more into rational thoughts, and realism, it seems this didn’t completely work.  (btw, I wonder if Apollo carried Dionysus’s’ picture on his chariot?)

           The one touch that really did add something bona-fide-contemporary, for me, anyway, was the music. David Coulter, who has been musical director for the likes of Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson (holy crap, really?!) gives touches of musical ambiance with an eclectic array of instruments. Director Perloff nicely places him on the stage for us to see, back within the clutter of the storage room of old furniture, behind the glass, which acts as a sort of scrim when the lights were up or down or out front or above or from behind (all nicely designed by lighting designer, Robert Wierzel, thank you). Coulter was only subtly lit up as he played, whether with his upright smaller version of a glass armonica, or the eerie sounds from an instrument lower down that we couldn’t see, sliding a bow downwards over a … what is that? A saw? A theremin? 

           And he could get very different feelings out of the same instrument, played in unique ways.  Perhaps he would dribble pebbles on a Timpani drum over here, to assist Victoria Deiorio’s sound design when it rained, but then pound the living shit out of it to give us the terrifying feeling of chaos and destruction, as the inferno at the orphanage raged.  But then?  A single strumming of some zither or another, if that’s what suited the scene. I think my favorite sound was of Oswald’s neck pain, from a presumed tertiary syphilitic gumma.  As the pain was being described, Coulter circled his finger around the largest glass, creating a deep, low menacing tone, and then when the pain stabbed, a quick, sharp high-pitched tone from the smallest glass, bowing it piercingly.  (Was that bow strung up with some metallic wire? … Perhaps he stole this idea from Laurie Anderson/Bob Bielecki?  Or Jimmy Page?  Or both?  Oh, hell, give it to him – Coulter is the bowing armonica master….)

           “Fine,” though, is otherwise the word of choice for this production.  Throughout, the acting was fine, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Helena rebutting the Pastor with stern retorts that were yet stiff-upper-lipped in a reserved, Scandinavian manner.  Free-thinking rebuttals that were undoubtedly courageous in their day for a woman, and for a playwright, based on the scandals with which the play was originally dealt.  Strathairn, likewise, played the finger-wagging killjoy, Pastor Manders, as well as could be done, one thinks.  He was appropriately stiff of posture, himself — but oh, what a drippy, pompous role to have to play.  Ugh.  I mean, I know this is how women are oppressed, then and now.  Not only with the domestic violence and the literal assassinations of Ob/Gyn physicians, but also by the insidious self-righteousness of these ubiquitous asshole-religious-leaders, who inspire laws and a culture where the threat of violence against women is omnipresent.  The whole “banality of evil”, and all, I suppose.  But … while actors typically enjoy playing the villain … I’ll betcha not many enjoy this one.  Too subtle.  (I know, I know — and there I was, saying there was too MUCH melodrama!  🙂 

           Albert Rubio III played Oswald … fine, looking rather the 1920s mustachioed Clark Gable…. And Nikita Tewani, as the maid Regina Engstrand, was likewise … fine.  All of the actors were believable, their stories were told, and all in all it was … fine — but the night was just not especially riveting.

           The only really inspired performance, the one that got the most reactions from the audience – and that felt like we were acknowledged as an audience and encouraged to participate — was from Thom Sesma, who played Regina’s step-father, the carpenter, Jakob Engstrand.  With just the wave of his hands and looking out at us, a simple joke about a dance was more engaging than even the climactic euthanasia scene.  To be fair, Sesma was allowed non-Scandinavian/Germanic bigger gestures — freer “working class movements” and struts — that made him much more physically interesting.  There is an interesting cog-sci study that showed that the assumption that Italians gesture more than Germans is incorrect.  Northern Europeans use an equal number, but just have subtler gestures — a slight finger movement here, a slight eyebrow raised there — while Southern Europeans use more proximal muscles, bigger wavings of the arms, etc.  I think, while Strathairn and Mastrantonio’s acting might have been better than I am appreciating, the fault might lie in this very difference.  A subtle facial expression is harder to pick up on in a large theater, and might be better suited for film…?  In any event, Sesma was a breath of fresh air in this otherwise misty set and suffocating play.  (Sesma is the only member of the cast who performed his role in the 2019 production, so perhaps that’s why he seems to have a comfortable, intuitive knowledge of the play?)

Photo by Sayed Alamy, from The Rep’s program. Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff in rehearsal, 2022.

           Perloff’s direction was, likewise … you guessed it … fine, with realistic acting and blocking, and the occasional breaking down of the fourth wall with characters running out into the audience, or the aforementioned Brechtian placement of David Coulter on the stage.  One assumes that with all of the above strategies employed to modernize this old 19th century morality lesson, it would highlight that these issues are a present-day problem, as well.  Perloff says in her interview in the program that she hopes audiences will take from the play that “women have only really begun the fight for autonomy and cultural value.”  Amen.  But, for me anyway, the play doesn’t walk that walk.  I don’t know.  I think perhaps a good rule of thumb, for me, is that, when doing realistic plays that really capture their time – but that come from a time countless generations ago — perhaps use the LEAST realistic style as possible.  Or perhaps, if playing it straight, one might simply project a supertitle in the beginning, that places the whole otherwise-crusty-bygone-era play in a creepy-near-future setting?  “The year is 2045…,” or something?  Make it feel more Handmaid’s Tale-y somehow? Or have giant photos of current misogynist rightwing leaders shown when Manders says “right sorts of people”?  Something less subtle, less realistic, LESS Ibsen is needed to make this 1880s play fresh.  Because as it is, I feel only the highest-of-brow theater majors of the Generation-Millennial-and-Z set will be able to enjoy this. 

           It looks increasingly plausible — with the Federalist Society succeeding at packing the Court, with the far right essentially succeeding at dismantling democracy at every level, with dozens of states enacting laws to put women “back in their place,” and with this dark cloud of nazionalism otherwise sweeping over the entire West these past 10 or so years — that the hard-won human rights of the first waves of feminism are imminently at risk, and that women’s lives are in danger right now.  Thus, on the topic of religion/morality oppressing women, which this play covers, we need a MUCH more impassioned art, that speaks to all women, not just Gen X and Boomer Rep audiences.  An art that really captures today, the here-and-now.  While I love the idea of this play, this production just doesn’t do it for me.  It feels more like … well, Gengangere.  A play that has returned.

           I get it. The oppressive society of the past, of Ibsen’s world, is alive again, today.  I get it.  This production might drive that home for you.  But for me, it was all … I dunno … just, fine.

Copyright April 17, 2022

S.E. Barcus is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Ghosts — The Play that Returned

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