A woman passing through a door into a dark and uncertain future is about the most apt metaphor imaginable for a new theatre troupe — especially in the current economic climate. So it makes sense that Marvell Rep, a just-established rotating repertory company, would christen its inaugural season by uniting two plays that prominently feature that image. For this first outing, which has just opened at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre under the direction of Marvell’s artistic director, Lenny Leibowitz, the company is batting a solid .500.
The hit of this double-bill is John Millington Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen. Written in 1903, some four years before The Playboy of the Western World, it’s a haunting and mordant look at personal and romantic obligation on the border of nowhere. What does the young and beautiful Nora (Eileen Ward) owe her older, bedbound, and essentially comatose husband, Dan (William Metzo), and what does she owe herself? The attentions of a young shepherd named Michael (Brian J. Carter), would seem to help make her decision for her, at least until Dan rises from the bed to prove he’s not as close to death as Nora had believed.
At once quirky and melancholic, the play derives its considerable charms from the recognizably human concern of two people discovering that what they most need may not be each other. Despite its paltry 30-minute running time, it’s deftly realized drama and comedy, densely packed with thought and feeling that Leibowitz and his company expertly manage. Metzo’s grizzled playfulness, a sort of lovably soft brusqueness, is a fitting contrast to Ward’s careworn warmth; you see at once the personalities that would draw them together, and yet keep them from every fully embracing each other. Carter’s good-natured Michael and the wide-eyed, disbelieving tramp of Sean Gormley round out a colorfully comic view of how we learn what we need (and don’t need) from others.
The longer of the two plays, and the first performed, tells an even more familiar story. A woman determines that her husband has never treated her with respect, and decides that making her own way in the world is the only way to affirm and attain the maturity and independence she’s never before known. This play is Nora, Ingmar Bergman’s 1980s rethinking of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and would seem, at first blush, ideal for letting experienced actors in a young company sink their teeth into these semi-classic roles in a relatively risk-free environment.
Bergman’s version, however, is far more delicate than Ibsen’s. Stripped of several characters and lots of connective tissue, it forces your attention onto the central tussles between Nora (Allison McLemore) and her husband Torvald (Chris Kipiniak), but at the expense of the classic well-oiled gender-war narrative. All that remains are the deepest conversations and the most fiery confrontations, leaving the play an overly tense — and often exhausting — slideshow of anger and angst. One moment, Nora and Torvald are happy; the next, she’s despondent because of the crushing debt she owes the unscrupulous Krogstad (Gormley); and then Mrs. Linde (Eileen Ward) has appeared to solve everyone’s problems. Blink and you’ll miss five crucial plot developments.
By relying on the audience’s experience with and knowledge of the original, Bergman fashioned a work that demands brilliant actors fill in the numerous yawning gaps — something this company cannot do. McLemore does indeed carry herself with the mien of a doll, but a wind-up doll, and a malfunctioning one at that: progressing from moods and plot points with lurching emotionalism that says nothing about who or what this Nora is, and why her life is growing so intolerable. Kipiniak is so ruthlessly sunny that Torvald’s turnaround in anger when he uncovers his wife’s ruse carries no weight or tragedy whatsoever. Gormley and Ward so stiff and understated here, they appear to be walking statues that somehow escaped from a Victorian exhibit at Madame Tussauds. The final remaining cast member, Marc Geller, is doddering and uncentered as the family friend, Dr. Rank.
The careening pace, as hollow and breakneck as In the Shadow of the Glen’s is robust and contemplative, of Leibowitz’s direction does not help matters. What does in both plays is an impressive physical production: Susan Nester’s costumes properly span the glass gamut from sumptuous to simple, Nicholas Houfek’s lights capture the glimmer of both high- and low-class moods, and Tijana Bjelajac’s scenic design melts effortlessly from that of social climbers to societal outcasts.
If you attend, be sure to stay around the theater at intermission to watch the remarkably extensive transformation from Ibsen/Bergman to Synge. That might be the most crucial part of the evening, as it proves just how far Marvell Rep can and will go. Just as important will be the final two shows in the group’s first season: Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Ansky’s The Dybbuk, which open (separately, not together) next month. The results are, at this point, anyone’s guess. But Marvell’s first program, however uneven it may be, does suggest that this is an ambitious and audacious company willing to take real risks and pursue the unexpected — something New York theatre can never have too much of.
Nora & In the Shadow of the Glen