Chicago Theatre Review
Things That Go Bump in the Night
GHOSTS and Zombies – Akvavit Theatre
In the theatrical canon of famed 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, known for such important, yet, at the time shocking dramas, such as “Hedda Gabler,” “A Doll’s House” and “The Master Builder,” his play “Ghosts” was especially controversial. Considered to be the father of theatrical realism, Ibsen’s plays were often looked upon as blasphemous and reprehensible. Morality, dramatic literature and acting styles have all evolved considerably since Victorian times. The themes and plots of the late 1800’s no longer disgust or scandalize us and this melodramatic acting comes off as humorous today.
Using this comedic theatrical style as a springboard, Swedish playwright Gustav Tenby has taken what was once called “one of Ibsen’s most outrageous plays” and made it feel contemporary. This play deals with everything from strong, independent women, religious zeal and extramarital affairs to incest, venereal disease, drugs and euthanasia; Tenby has melded all of this with 21st century theatergoers’ obsession with zombies and the undead. Translated by Chad Eric Bergman, Tenby has adapted and satirized this classic by combining it with what today’s audiences want. While modernizing the script, Tenby has given it a definite absurdist, yet melodramatic twist.
Mrs. Alving (energetic, articulate and accomplished actress, Marsha Harman), an intelligent middle-aged widow, is living comfortably in the house she once shared with her deceased (or is he?) scoundrel of a husband. She’s waited upon by pretty, young Regina Engstrand (spunky Almanya Narula), her maid and, secretly, her daughter, sired by the late Captain Alving with Johanna, one of his many floozies. Mrs. Alving’s grown son Osvald (played with confidence and earnest enthusiasm by Micah Kronlokken) returns home from Paris, where he’s been living as an aspiring artist. He’s delighted to find that Regina, 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 Joshua K. Harris) who married Regina’s birth mother, hounds his stepdaughter, Regina, and everyone else, for money to build a Home for Wayward Sailors, a codeword for a bawdyhouse. The town’s fervent, leering religious leader, Pastor Manders (passionately and aggressively portrayed by Jeremy Trager), is a frequent visitor to the house, forever counseling Mrs. Alving with his bombastic declamations. He’s arrived this dark and stormy night to bless the new orphanage that Mrs. Alving built with the money her late husband left her. When the orphanage later burns to the ground, Osvald and Regina learn the truth about their relationship. Mrs. Alving also discovers that not only is her son suffering from syphilis but he wants her to put him out of his misery. But this is where “Ghosts” becomes a zombie story.
Director Breahan Pautsch has chosen to overemphasize Ibsen’s bounty of bizarre events, while infusing her off-the-wall production with over-the-top melodrama. The artificiality is refreshingly countered by Marsha Harman’s strong, realistic portrayal of Mrs. Alving, who alone seems to be residing in the modern world. The remaining characters sound properly Victorian, particularly Jeremy Trager as a hell-and-brimstone Pastor Manders. The blend of “The Walking Dead” with Ibsen is truly inspired, very creative and quite fun. Blood and guts are flung everywhere, and there’s a splatter zone, in which audiences may don protective parkas. This production is the equivalent of visiting a Halloween Haunted House populated with a zombie cast of some of the city’s most accomplished actors.
This bizarrely unorthodox adaptation beautifully parodies the Ibsen classic with things that go bump in the night, but it could benefit from some judicious editing. The past still continues to revisit the present, but not like Scrooge’s iconic Christmas Eve visitors. However, within all the chaos and conflict stuffed into this play, the melodramatic style of the original piece is wisely played for humor. It sometimes feels a little uneven, as if the absurdity could be elevated even further with some of the characters.
Most of the humor is a result of Breahan Pautsch’s fine direction, balancing between her realistically modern interpretation and the play’s demand for melodrama. Chad Eric Bergman’s solarium scenic design, Rachel Sypniewski’s period perfect costumes, David Goodman-Edberg’s eerie lighting, Nigel Harsch’s wonderful original musical score and sound design and, especially, Leticha Guillaud’s imaginative props make this production reek with Halloween horror. Special kudos go to Bethany Weise’s hair and makeup and a superb violence design, courtesy of R&D Choreography. Everything else is simply a collection of ghosts, courtesy of Henrik Ibsen. As October 31st draws near, theatergoers searching for a quirky, scary production with a contemporary bent will find this zombie-infested comedy to be their best choice.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 28-October 29 by Akvavit Theatre at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office on show nights, or by going to www.chicagonordic.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.