Stockholmby Bryony Lavery. Directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...hallowed, holiest together time."
When two people are as deeply involved with one another as are Todd and Kali in Bryony Lavery’s play "Stockholm," there is definitely something wrong in loveland. Planning an imminent trip to the Swedish city, the two have been attending an Ingmar Bergman festival to get into the Swedish mood. But that is merely a surface scraping. They are actually living in a Stockholm Syndrome situation and living out a legendary, religious experience as well.
According to one source, "Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes ‘strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.’ One commonly used hypothesis to explain the effect of Stockholm syndrome is based on Freudian theory. It suggests that the bonding is the individual’s response to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself. When a victim believes the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be a threat."
In this unusual dance-drama both of the participants seem to suffer equally from this syndrome which is why, I believe, the author has placed them squarely under the flashing neon sign of the title. In staging this American premiere production of the 2008 British play, director Laura Margolis has enlisted the talents of a choreographer named Jennifer Weber and together the two of them have fashioned a remarkable physicalization of the play. Love interludes are danced and those interludes are everything from simply affectionate to utterly violent and dangerous. Todd and Kali put themselves in harm’s way and place one another in the danger zone. Together with the words in Lavery’s script this makes them the most odd couple in any theatrical venture in memory.
The play examines the limits, the very outer limits of trust and faith and love in a relationship. The characters play the moments directly or from an outside perspective speaking of themselves and each other in the distancing third person. A scene in bed is as dangerous as any scene I have witnessed in my years in this job. A scene on the stairs has sexually graphic elements that would make my hair curl if it wasn’t already curly. Though Todd and Kali are very definitive characters and this is a defiantly male/female relationship, I can easily see this work performed by a same sex couple of either sex and not one iota of reality would be lost in the change.
Kali is played by Emily Gardner Hall, whose beauty is entrancing as is her use of personal humor. She laughs prettily and that laughter seems to defuse Todd whenever he becomes too serious and to edgy. (Kali, however, is the name of the Hindu Goddess of Time, Death and Destruction and that version of Kali often dances herself into a fit of rage and when she goes out of control only the God Shiva is able to tame her just as only Kali can tame Shiva. This is both because she is often a transformed version of one of his consorts and because he is able to match her wildness.) Like her namesake, our Kali dances and her dancing is also sexually arousing and leads directly to the violence that follows. Hall dances with an intense strength that invigorates the play time after time and always ends in Todd as her victim. Hall’s face transforms at these moments and her beauty turns malevolent. It is quite a performance, one that will resonate for a long, long time.
Jason Babinsky takes the role of her current Shiva, her lord, her consort. (The God, known for many things including his control of dancing, reputedly took his bride Shakti - or Kali - away from all she knew for a complete immersion into a world sexual intercourse that inspired the rebirth of long dead Gods when their mingled sweat mixed with ancient ashes.) For him she is an inescapable part of his being. He cannot take his eyes off of her and when his parents call to wish him a happy birthday he cannot remove himself from her side for an instant. Babinsky plays the enthralled man to a tee and it is almost discomfiting to watch him defend and attack and dance the heat of a sexually charged being in her presence.
This highly unusual use of Hindu legends has clearly inspired the playwright and the director and the choreographer in the creation of this remarkable evening of theater. In a loft setting, presumably in a modern large city, Todd and Kali play out their mystery play, each the willing prisoner of the other, each capable of great love and great danger. In an hour and seven minutes we, the audience, hang on a wall, or on the ceiling of their flat, as witness to their passion, as passive non-participants in their inflamed relationship.
Randall Parsons unique set gives us those perspectives aided immensely by Deena Pewtherer’s lighting and Ben Heyman’s sound design which even provides us with Shiva’s unique drumming, a keynote for his reflection of the human heart.
Weber’s choreography gives us different examples of the animal lust and the murderous intent that marks these two as special and especially primal. Without her work the play would diminish to a sitcom without a renewal clause and not even Margolis’ excellent interpretation of the play’s characters would have the power that this collaboration has produced. I don’t know if the script calls for such dance movement but I believe it must for without it the play would have a curious element but not its power.
In a run too short it is a matter of urgency that theater-goers take advantage of this American debut and see it while it is possible. Not a mainstream work it could easily follow the course of Kali’s reign and disappear entirely when the effects of Stockholm syndrome begin to dry up like a summer stream.
Emily Gardner Hall & Jason Babinsky; photo: Rob Shannon
Emily Gardner Hall & Jason Babinsky; photo: Rob Shannon
Jason Babinsky & Emily Gardner Hall; photo: Rob Shannon
Stockholm runs at Stageworks Hudson’s theatre, located at 41 Cross Street, Hudson, New York, through September 1. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-828-7843 or go on line at www.stageworkshudson.org.