Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen in a new translation by Anders Cato and James Leverett. Directed by Anders Cato.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I have sufficient faith in the providence of a Higher Power."
NOTE: Since publishing this review four days ago it has been brought to my attention that the seats assigned to me (second row on the aisle, house left) prevented me from witnessing a great deal of the action as conceived and directed by Anders Cato. In discussion with other critics in the area who also missed seeing most of the "dumbshow" performed by the ensemble [Katee Brown, Cameron Harms, Hank Lin, John St. Croix, Kate Villanova and Homer Winston] it is clear that the production was not supervised in any significant way by the producers at this theater. I have discussed the show with 52 other people who saw it on Tuesday night and 40 percent of them saw the entire show, 10 percent missed a portion of the additional material, presumably designed and directed to illustrate points in the story, and 50 percent of those surveyed saw the same show I did. To prevent 50 percent of any audience from seeing the show complete is a technical error that cannot be called a glitch, but can only be seen for what it is, bad producing. When purchasing tickets to this show, please ask the box office to provide you with seats that will allow you to see everything and ask for a guarantee to that effect.
Read the theater's official response to this below the review: click on the WORD document icon to read their letter to their patrons and the public.
All of the players - who are deeply involved in the dark story line of Henrik Ibsenís play "Ghosts," now on stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA - are people marked by an intense involvement in the rightness of their choices. They donít wear scarlet letters, or brandish swords with a specific family tree emblazoned on the overdress thatís worn. No, that group we could spot a mile off. These people live a subtle and disguised life that rarely allows them to express more than disgust. These are people who have solid foundations and tiny scraps of whimsy in their makeup. They live their lives for themselves in more ways than one. They share only under extreme circumstances.
With her son home from Paris for an extended visit, Helene Alving seems ready to expose some family secrets to Pastor Manders, an old friend. He, meanwhile, is acting as the lawyer on her behalf for a major project to create a memorial for her late husband, an orphanage. His advice on contract matters turns out to be instantly bad, but in reality the discussion comes too late to do any good. Osvald, Heleneís son, is an artist who has lost his ability or will to work. He has come home for the first time in a long while and he is a man with a mission, although he isnít aware of it until he is already established as the son and heir. A young woman he knows, raised by his own mother, Regine, sets her sights on the son and reneges on the almost done deal when she discovers he is ill. At the same time her manipulative father is working around left over fortunes in order to open a business of his own.
Those are the elements that move the play from point A to point B, the total distance traveled in this play. The theaterís program indicates a six person ensemble as well, but what they do is a mystery to me. Even the off-stage noises wouldnít take six players. Perhaps they are all ghosts, after all that is the showís title. But they arenít the ghosts referred to. Mrs. Alving notices similarities in activities in her home to those that happened long ago, and she believes these to be the ghosts that have haunted her for too many years. She is a portrait of symbolism as it turns out and her memories haunt her far more than the ghosts of people she could only imagine.
Mia Dillon plays Helene Alving. The role was first played in America in 1899 by Mary Shaw who brought it back to Broadway in1903. The famous actress Duse brought it into New York in 1923, Lucille Watson followed in 1926 and the famous Mrs. Fiske revived it again in 1927.Silent screen star Alla Nazimova tried it in 1933, Leueen MacGrath in 1961, and Beatrice Straight made the most of it in 1973 with a young Victor Garber as her son. This play seems to haunt the stage in much the way Mrs. Alving feels the presence of ghosts in her life. Now it is Mia Dillonís turn to make the role her own and this she does effectively in the current production. She doesnít seem to be channeling any of her predecessors but rather is bringing her own unique style to the character.
Her work in this role is nothing short of brilliant. She is the central character and she holds center stage even from the far reaches of stage left. Others in the company may shine in their moments, but our attention is pretty much riveted on Mrs. Alving, awaiting her reactions to everything and anything. Dillon handles that challenge admirably. She is never out of character, never unaware of the demands of the role she must play, loving mother, determined wife, embittered lover. Her lengthy scenes with Pastor Manders are tightly played and never lag.
Manders, her not quite lover, her almost husband choice, her never savior, is played at full tilt by David Adkins who seems incapable of anything less than a fully rounded character. He is totally believable, even in Manders most stuffy, huffy moments. When he softens for a second, calling Mrs. Alving by her first name, exposing his own inner emotions, he touches your heart. If there was no greater performance than his in the play, it would be a worthwhile experience, but he has Dillon to contend with for top honors in this one and not just her.
Randy Harrison as Osvald, a tough character to enliven, is good enough to make even Osvaldís diffidence feel like love. He plays things close and dark most of the time and when his tightly withheld emotions burst through in the final scene (formerly known as Act Three) that spurt erupts into a torrent and sweeps in front of it everything Dillon can offer up. These two play well together, a believable family unit without family ties. Harrison plays the demanding Osvald in this scene in just the same way that Dillon plays the resistant parent. They practically make this scene into a musical duet, the playing is just that good.
The Engstrand family, father Jacob and daughter Regine are played by the equally marvelous Jonathan Epstein and Tara Franklin. Their previous pairing in "Educating Rita" has payed off in their now accustomed rhythmic senses, it seems, for they make the sharp dialogue between Jacob and his daughter into something wonderfully balletic, with words replacing feet in this case. They dance off each other with Ibsenís verbal barbs and even though Regine becomes an unsympathetic role, we cannot help liking her for her independence and spirit.
Epstein has this conniving sort of role down pat by now and he makes his earlier roles pay off here. We know thereís a con going on somehow, but he addresses Engstrandís needs and/or demands with such an honesty that it is hard to tell if this dream of a Sailorís Home is real or unreal. It doesnít even matter, he is just so good to watch in this part.
The ensemble does nothing.
The drama is played out in a room that isnít a room, doesnít resemble a room and has no connection with the 1880s date of the play. Designed by Lee Savage, its sparseness, modernism and abused Victorian furniture, all in shades of gray and black, are nothing less than a basement entry room in a contemporary museum. It is hardly the gracious and elegant home normally allowed the family Alving. It is enough wrong to justify the rare visits by Osvald, an artist whose paintings should at least be hung in this gallery room where no art is manifest at all.
The lighting is equally strange and demanding, turning night into a light show that throws human shadows onto walls without an honest light source to do such a thing and turns morning into a blinding glare. Tyler Micoleau is responsible for one of the ugliest designs in light that I have ever seen. One of Ibsen's few stage directions in the play call for us to finally see the vista of fjord and hillside that surrounds the Alving home. It is meant to be a sharp contrast to the anguish and human despair that plays out in the gracious room occupied by the Alvings. Set and lights make that contrast impossible in this production.
Olivera Gajicís costumes are perfect for the characters, however, and also help us understand the era of the play and the Norwegian style and spirit. Scott Killianís music/sound effects and sound design are unusually odd. Sometimes they seemed to cue oddness in the script and at other times they felt like something called in to the play at the wrong time. This show does not contain his finest work.
The new script by director Anders Cato and dramaturg James Leverett gives the play a contemporary sound without destroying the time and place of the play itself. Catoís direction often seemed static as characters stood in one place for far too long for my taste. The sparse set doesnít provide many places for people to sit, so standing becomes an open option and one Cato took far too often.
Ghosts is a play that will drive you into a frenzy as information is finally spilled in the last act that makes information related in Act One finally feel important. This production uses that same construction to keep the audience on the edge of their seats trying to comprehend the truth behind the lies that Ibsen craftily used in creating these people and their situation. This production is a fine one for its actors, but not for its production values. It is worth a shot, but consider listening and not looking. You may find it to be a much better play.
Mia Dillon as Mrs. Alving; photo: Jamie Davidson
Randy Harrison as Osvald; photo: Jamie Davidson
David Adkins as Manders; photo: Jamie Davidson
Ghosts plays on the main stage of the Berkshire Theatre Festival through August 29. The theater is on Route 102 in Stockbridge, but is approachable from Route 7 as well. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-298-5576.