Thursday, September 11, 2014

62. Review of BASTARDS OF STRINDBERG (September 9, 2014)


It’s hard to repress the urge to use the word “pretentious” when describing BASTARDS OF STRINDBERG, an evening of four one-acts inspired by Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 naturalistic masterpiece, MISS JULIE. On taking your seat at the Lion Theatre, the first thing you see on the black stage, bare except for a black dinner table and chairs, is Anette Norgaard, an attractive woman sitting motionless in semi-profile, spotlighted in an elevated corner of the back wall. No matter how early you arrive she’s there, waiting for the play to begin. Even when the house lights dim she waits there endlessly, until you begin to wonder if this is meant intentionally as a way of creating an air of mystery, or if, perhaps, something has gone wrong technically and she’s unable to escape her lofty perch. Then, breaking the puzzlingly somnambulant mood is a woman’s amplified voice on the PA system, welcoming the audience and giving it the usual preshow instructions. Well, there goes the mystery. Finally, as Ms. Norgaard begins singing atmospheric, lyric-less music of her own composition (abetted by Amy Altadonna’s sound design and Elyssa Samsel’s violin accompaniment) in what sounds like a faux CIRQUE DU SOLEIL mode, the cast of seven enters down the theatre’s single aisle and takes the stage, rearranging the stage furniture and dancing as if they were the servants in Strindberg’s play at their Midsummer Night’s Eve revels.
These actors, some of whom will appear in more than one play on the program, soon take up places on the walls bordering the stage, a tired theatrical conceit perhaps designed in this case to remind us of Strindberg’s comments about spectators at naturalistic presentations being like flies on the wall.  During the interludes separating one play from the other, as Ms. Norgaard sings, all the actors will dance, some of them rather awkwardly, in oddly choreographed (by Lauren Camp) sequences, only to take up new positions on the perimeter as the next piece commences. In one scene they stand rigidly side by side in profile along the stage left wall, like Roman statues in a museum. Despite all this unnecessarily pretentious (sorry, I couldn’t help it) theatrical folderol, however, all great Neptune’s ocean will not wash clean the general inadequacy of the acting, direction, and writing in this unfortunate misfire.  
BASTARDS OF STRINDBERG company. Photo: Kait Ebinger.
BASTARDS OF STRINDBERG is the ambitious brainchild of the Scandinavian American Theatre Company, which, in 2012, commissioned four playwrights, two Americans and two Swedish, to write short plays responding to the ideas and emotions generated by MISS JULIE as a way of memorializing the centenary of Strindberg’s death, and introducing “emerging” Swedish playwrights to the American stage. As ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN, Tom Stoppard’s HAMLET spinoff, so brilliantly demonstrates, the notion of creating a new play out of a famous one and thus examining the original’s relevance in the contemporary world is certainly a viable one; however, when it’s done as part of a commissioned project it can easily create work that seems forced rather than inspired by burning need. Commissioning a playwright to write whatever he or she wishes is one thing; doing so based on a specific theme or subject is something different. (A recent exception might be BAUER, at 59E59, commissioned to dramatize an inherently powerful true-life story.)
Revivals of MISS JULIE are staples of the modern repertory; only last season St. Ann’s Warehouse presented MIES JULIE, a well-received adaptation set within a South African environment. A movie of Strindberg’s play, starring Jessica Chastain, is also forthcoming. Strindberg’s “naturalistic tragedy,” set in a basement kitchen on Midsummer’s Eve, a night potent with life-changing possibilities, is famous for its groundbreaking treatment of sexual, class, psychological, and gender themes. Miss Julie, the spoiled, 25-year-old daughter of a Swedish count, flirts with and has sex with Jean, her father’s valet, and thus of much lower social class. Shamed by her transgressive behavior, and believing she loves him, she’s prepared to flee with him to open a hotel in Switzerland. Jean is engaged to the servant Kristin (who nods off during crucial scenes), however, and backs out of the plan. Faced with the count’s return, Julie has nowhere to turn; Jean hands her his razor and she goes off to commit suicide.
While the one-acts in BASTARDS OF STRINDBERG vary in the degree to which they reflect the plot and circumstances of MISS JULIE, it would be hard to imagine anyone appreciating them without at least a cursory knowledge of the original. Some of these plays’ allusions are immediately recognizable, such as the sexual byplay and the business with the razor, some are narrower, such as references to Switzerland, animals, flowers, and excrement. In tune with today’s feminist sensibilities, Julie now usually takes the upper hand in her power struggle with Jean. Despite its respected position as a pillar of the early modern theatre, MISS JULIE is not as widely familiar as HAMLET, which may partly account for only a dozen people being present when I attended on Tuesday evening, a number diminished by two midway through.
The four plays, in order, are David Bar Katz’s “Chanting Hymns to Fruitless Moons,” Linda Ekdahl’s “Midsummer at ‘Tyrolen,’” Dominique Morisseau’s “High Powered,” and Andreas Boonstra’s “The Truth about Fröken Julie.” Ms. Ekdahl and Mr. Boonstra are the Swedish contributors. Alicia Dhyana House directed the first and last play, and Henning Hegland the second and third. Apart from “High Powered,” the plays all toy with surrealistic or absurdist effects. The set, credited to Starlet Jacobs, is little more than a group of chairs and tables, rearranged for each playlet on the black stage. Yuki Nakase’s lighting does what it can under limited circumstances. Throughout, the actors wear simple black and white ensembles, designed by Nicole Wee.
From left: Ingrid Kullberg-Benz, Vanessa Johansson, Devin B. Tillman. Photo: Kait Ebinger.
In the first play, “Chanting Hymns to Fruitless Moons” (a title with unfortunate echoes of an underwear brand) Young Julie (Vanessa Johansson), barefoot and dressed in a short, white shift, is mirrored by her older self (Ingrid Kullberg-Benz), wearing a formal black dress with a sequined shoulder jacket. Young Julie can commune with the older Julie (it’s Midsummer’s Eve, after all) and, following her advice, subverts Strindberg’s game plan of having Julie die by turning Jean (Devin B. Tillman) into the suicide victim at the end. Insecure actors, plodding tempo, and clumsy staging provide little support for this dull trifle.
Rikke Lylloff, Albert Bendix. Photo: Kait Ebinger.
The thinly drawn “Midsummer at ‘Tyrolen’” sees Julie (Rikke Lylloff), Kristin (Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz), and Jean (Albert Bendix) as modern day characters hanging out at a rundown restaurant, the Tyrolen, a replacement for MISS JULIE’s kitchen, with Jean hoping to use Julie’s capital to go into business for himself with a trucking company. Each actor also doubles as their own internal commentator, making statements about their character’s motivations. STRANGE INTERLUDE it’s not. Once again, flabby performances and direction only make things murkier.
The only play on the program with recognizable characters, a reasonably compelling narrative, dialogue worth listening to, and consistently strong performances is Ms. Morisseau’s “High Powered,” which deviates most sharply from Strindberg’s play by focusing on Kristin and Jean. In this telling, Kristin is a contemporary black woman named Mya (Zenzele Cooper), who works for Julie as a dog walker. She and her black boyfriend, the Jean character, named Darrin (Devin B. Tillman, understudying for Kwasi Osei), are preparing to move from their Bronx hole-in-the-wall to a Manhattan studio being paid for by Julie, whose father has given Jean, Julie’s chauffeur, a well-paying sales job in his business firm. Jean, who claims to have mathematical prowess, claims this is the reason for his imminent success, but Mya suspects there’s something more involved with regard to Darrin’s relationship with Julie. Mya speaks in ungrammatical black vernacular, which the implausibly articulate Darrin (who nonetheless thinks “be” is a preposition) is constantly correcting. The play explores issues such as race envy (Darrin seeks to become “like them”) and the disparity between the 99 and the 1. Perhaps because the characters, dialogue, and situations are more immediate than in the other plays, the acting (especially that of Ms. Cooper, who gives the best performance of the evening) and direction are more convincing. The play may stand out because of its relative credibility rather than because it offers anything particularly outstanding; it still takes a stretch of the imagination to accept the dialogue as reflective of these particular characters, rather than as words put in their mouths to fulfill the dramatist’s agenda. And it's hard to ignore a scene where Darrin gets so angry he practically strangles Mya; a few moments later, after she gets her breath back, she’s reconciled to remaining with him. Shades of Janny Palmer Rice!!!   
Last, and not quite least, is the one play with some comedic content, “The Truth about Fröken Julie” (“fröken” means “Miss). Also set in today’s world, it includes music by Bob Dylan sung by Jean (Drew O’Kane), and the Dead Boys, sung by Kristin (Rikke Lylloff), and contains an extended sequence using drawings on a whiteboard to deconstruct Jean’s tall tale, told to Julie (Vanessa Johansson); it concerns a time in his childhood when he escaped from her father’s exotic outhouse by diving into the excrement and exiting through a rear door. Whatever. The last third of the piece shifts into metatheatrical territory as the characters, obviously stimulated by their chatter about lies, begin to confront their own existence as characters in a play, directly addressing the audience about it. Julie’s polemic informs us of how she has a big problem with theatre “when we try to make this unreal fantasy-thing as close to real as possible. It becomes so unreal.” I hope she doesn’t think the play she’s in offers a meaningful alternative.
The final line of “The Truth about Fröken Julie,” spoken by Julie, says it all: “Just tell me stories, give me relationships, feelings, messages, politics, music. Something I can believe in.” To which I counter, please do.