Chicago Theatre Review
The Past Repeats Itself
Ibsen’s Ghosts – Mary-Arrchie Theatre
The famed 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is known for a number of important plays. Among them include “Hedda Gabler,” “A Doll’s House,” “The Master Builder” and “Ghosts.” He’s considered to be the father of theatrical realism and, as such, his plays were often looked upon as controversial, shocking, blasphemous and reprehensible. Morality, dramatic literature and acting styles have all evolved considerably since Victorian times. The themes and plot devices of the late 1800’s no longer disgust or scandalize us and this melodramatic style of acting comes off as humorous today.
Neo-Futurist founding director Greg Allen, inspired by his staging of a production called “The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen,” has reimagined this particular Ibsen play, which actually originally premiered in Chicago back in 1882. Calling this drama “one of Ibsen’s most outrageous plays,” because it deals with everything from strong, independent women, religious zeal and extramarital affairs to incest and venereal disease, drugs and euthanasia, Allen has chosen to adapt and satirize this classic for contemporary audiences. While modernizing the script, Allen has given it a definite absurdist twist.
Mrs. Alving, a well-read widow, is living comfortably in the house she once shared with her deceased scoundrel of a husband. The woman, or perhaps the actress, is convinced that she’s living in an Ibsen play. Her table is piled high with the playwright’s scripts, along with programs and other theatrical literature. She’s waited upon by pretty, young Regina Engstrand, her maid and (secretly) her daughter, sired by the late Captain Alving with one of his many floozies. Mrs. Alving’s adult son Oswald (played with confidence and earnest enthusiasm by Gage Wallace) returns home from Paris, where he’s been living as an aspiring artist. He’s delighted to find that Regina (the pretty, refined, French-speaking Catherine Lavoie), the love of his life, is still living with his mother. What he doesn’t know is that his girlfriend is also his half-sister.
Jacob Engstrand, a physically handicapped wheeler-dealer (played with spit and vinegar by Kirk Anderson) who married Regina’s birth mother, hounds his stepdaughter, Regina, and everyone else for money to build a Home for Wayward Sailors, actually a bawdyhouse. The town’s fervent, leering religious leader, Paster Manders, is a constant visitor at the house, forever counseling Mrs. Alving and all who’ll listen to his bombastic declamations. He’s arrived this dark and stormy night to bless the new orphanage that Mrs. Alving had built with the money her late husband left her. As the orphanage later burns to the ground, Oswald and Regina learn the truth about their relationship. Mrs. Alving also discovers that not only is her son suffering from syphilis but he wishes her to put him out of his misery with an overdose of morphine. As the lights dim, Mrs. Alving begs the audience to relieve her of this burden.
Allen has chosen to overemphasize Ibsen’s bounty of bizarre events, while infusing his off-the-wall production with an abundance of over-the-top, authentic, melodrama. The artificiality is countered by Carolyn Hoerdemann’s strong portrayal of Mrs. Alving, who alone seems to be residing primarily in the modern world. At one point she grabs a copy of the script from which to read her lines; in another scene she even steps through the invisible walls of the set to join the audience, observing the proceedings from a new perspective. The remaining characters sound properly Victorian, particularly Stephen Walker as a hell-and-brimstone Paster Manders. At other times they spout very contemporary dialogue tinged with 21st century attitudes and inflections. The end result is often jarring and sometimes a bit confusing.
In this bizarrely unorthodox adaptation that parodies the Ibsen classic (and which could benefit from some cutting), the past still continues to revisit the present. Not exactly like Scrooge’s Christmas Eve visitors, these ghosts are specters that supposedly result from the sins of the father. With a multitude of chaos and conflict stuffed into this play, the melodramatic style of the original piece is wisely played for humor. It just feels uneven, as if the absurdity could still be elevated even further. Most of the humor is a result of Carolyn Hoerdemann’s fine balancing act between her realistically modern interpretation and the play’s demand for overacting. Everything else is simply a collection of ghosts from the pen of Ibsen. For theatergoers searching for a quirky production with a non-holiday theme, this might be their best choice.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 8-December 20 by Mary-Arrchie Theatre at their Angel Island space, 735 W. Sheridan, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-871-0442 or by going to www.maryarrchie.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.