Creditors, by August Strindberg, adapted by David Greig. Directed by Nicole Ricciardi. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Ryan Winkles, Kristin Wold; photo: Nile Scott Studio
"She did it to gain her freedom."
"Can't I have an idea of my own?"
"You don't like being in my debt, do you!"
Jonathan Epstein as Gustav; photo: Nile Scott Studio
In August Strindberg's play "Creditors" a successful female novelist is married to a well-known painter who has, inexplicably, turned to sculpture. He is her second husband, the first one having been somewhat older, a high school teacher who brought his now ex-wife into prominence through the incidents of their former marriage which she has exploited in her first book. High School teachers, it seems, are as relentlessly antsy as the artists of this world and in David Greig's adaptation of the one-act play that Strindberg regarded as one of his finest achievements (after "The Father" and "Miss Julie") he is a relentless and vindictive man whose "acting" abilities far outstrip any other aspects of his personality. The play is currently on stage at Shakespeare and Company in the Elayne P. Bernstein theater where it, with its three characters, has taken up residency for the moment.
Jonathan Epstein plays Gustav, the first husband, the older and wiseass former husband of Tekla the authoress of fiction. He has watched her escapades and has found her latest conquest, Adolph, befriended the younger man and has been slowly manipulating the artist's mind through suggestion, scholarship and a deviously relentless pursuit of the fact that there is something wrong with the young man's marriage to a woman who wows men wherever she goes. Epstein delivers his lines with the casual apathy of a thoughtful deviant who has learned through years of teaching young minds how to take suggestion to the next level. He plays his role with a deadly calm and a certain sweetness of concern that turns his every gesture into a subtle knife-thrust and his every word into an insinuation of betrayal. This may well be his finest work in several years as he turns friendliness into destruction and charm into hatred with the lustre of paternalism.
Hiding behind the curtain of love Gustav, in Epstein's graceful hands, makes his points in the way a fencing master makes his with the sharpened tip of his epée. He draws just enough blood, enough emotional energy first from Adolph and then from Tekla, to wreak havoc, his personal revenge for her leaving him, in a way that actually seems to disturb him just a bit. The ending of the play, which belongs to Epstein's Gustav, is as chilling a moment as I have experienced in several seasons.
Kristin Wold as Tekla; photo: Nile Scott Studio
Kristen Wold makes a romantic figure in the period dress she wears for the summer resort where she and Adolph have taken summer refuge by the sea. We only learn much later that she has known these rooms before having honeymooned in them with her first husband. Wold plays this and so many other revelations with a disconnect that is extremely telling in this highly intriguing mini-melodrama.
She plays off both men with the exact superficiality that is talked about thorughout the play. Her Tekla is an obvious flirt who takes pleasure and displays pride in her achievements in captivating her male audience. Wold manages to be still half an innocent as she topples the men in her life. She brings to Tekla a sweet voice, and graceful gestures, and an open-handed sweetness that cannot be true to her actual inner character. It is almost possible to watch her click off the possibilities in every situation, storing away in her mind the useful results that may soon appear in a new novel. She is truly devastating throughout the play, and honestly devastated when she discovers the outcome of her actions and her voiced thoughts.
Ryan Winkles as Adolph; photo: Nile Scott Studio
As good as Epstein and Wold are in their roles, the play really rides on the character of Adolph played here by the outstanding Ryan Winkles. Watching this actor over the years move from fey fop roles to light comedy to farce, from physical action to romantic leading man to this character has been a remarkable journey for him and for his legion of fans. This is truly one of those performances about which people will talk for many years to come. Adolph is an artist, too sensitive for his own good, who has created himself newly reborn as an awkward cripple on crutches who cannot rely on his own body to do its human work. We watch him over the course of a literal 93 minutes move from that physical personna to a strong, vibrant, healthy man, actually able to leap tall building with a single bound and back again. Winkles makes it all seem natural and right even when discussing his debilitating illness which may not exist, much in the format of an honest-to-God hypochondriac let loose on an unprepared world.
He and Wold have lovely, romantic moments and still manage to engage in the cat and dog fights that married people who have lost their faith in the romance between them can create for themselves. This Adolph needs no audience for whom to perform; he can give the academy award moment for himself alone. Winkles art on stage is believability and here he uses that asset in spades. He is the sculptor he portays. He is the outraged husband he is said to be. He becomes Gustav's tool in the humiliation of Tekla and he does so with a chilling reality. This is a masterful performance, one to see, one for the memory book.
Director Nicole Riccciardi has done s fantastic job with this difficult play, allowing the laughs where they can come, provoking antagonism with just the right picture, people placed exactly right. She keeps the play in almost constant motion which, for three nervous people, works wonders. Deborah Brothers has provided costumes that look exactly right for a Swedish resort. John McDermott has transformed the simple beauty of a seaside resort hotel into the messy, never cleaned artist's studio that counfounds me just a bit. The lighting by James W. Bilnoski shifted mood with great subtlety and I could have wished for a touch more theatricality, but that's just me.
Seeing good Strindberg is always rewarding. I hadn't seen this play before and, for the most part but not always, found this one most intriguing and rewarding in its performance. Realism truly sinks its teeth into subject matter here and if you find the ending hard to take, well, I think you're supposed to. I think Strindberg wants us to question, wants us to consider and contemplate. He was never a simple man and this is not a simple play. That figures.
Creditors plays on the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre stage at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through August 12. For information and tickets go to www.shakespeare.org or call the box office at 413-637-3353.