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The Enchantment

Theatre Review by James Wilson - July 6, 2017

Matthew DeCapua and Fiona Mongillo
Photo by Katrin Talbot

As an overlooked piece of theatre history, Victoria Benedictsson's semi-autobiographical The Enchantment, currently receiving its US premiere in a production by Ducdame Ensemble, is a fascinating curio. Benedictsson (1850-1888) is a highly regarded novelist and playwright in her native Sweden, and she is recognized as an early feminist and fierce advocate for free love. She had a scandalous affair with Georg Brandes, one of the leading literary critics of the day, and when the relationship came to a disastrous end, she killed herself in a hotel room by slitting her throat with a razor. In death she became better known among modern drama scholars as the inspiration for August Strindberg's Miss Julie and Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. For this reason alone, The Enchantment, written just a few months before the playwright's death in 1888, is worth seeing. Unfortunately, the play, which has been translated and adapted by Tommy Lexen, is not nearly as riveting as its backstory.

The Enchantment revolves around Louise Strandberg (Fiona Mongillo), a bourgeois Swedish woman living la vie de bohème in Paris at the pinnacle of the Belle Époque. At the beginning of the play Louise has recently recovered from a bout of typhus, but she is emotionally and sexually revived by the attentions of the dashingly seductive sculptor Gustave Alland (Matthew DeCapua). On one level Louise knows that she will join the roster of women Alland has loved and discarded, and this list includes her friend and confidant Erna Wallden (Jane May). Louise, however, is powerless under Alland's "enchantment." Besides, a short, passionate existence in Paris seems far preferable to the prospects of a long, dreary life in the Swedish countryside with a kind, but boring, banker husband (Michael J. Connolly).

The production moves briskly under Lucy Jane Atkinson's unfussy direction, and Lexen's translation and adaptation is generally economic and clear. (There were, though, a few moments in which twenty-first century idioms and parlance jarringly punctuated the dialogue, such as when a character opines with the colloquially overused, "It is what it is.")

The play's brevity (the five acts are performed in under two hours including intermission) may ultimately be its drawback since it does not have time to sufficiently develop character relationships. As a result, The Enchantment lacks both sensual sparks and intellectual fire. In fact the charming cad states quite clearly up front, "Love is like a blossoming flower—the beauty passes quickly." The only reason to be invested in the characters, then, is if the sexual attraction is all consuming. It is not.

Claire Curtis-Ward and Paul Herbig
Photo by Katrin Talbot

The play lacks, for instance, the raw, sexual power struggle that is at the core of Strindberg's Miss Julie; the devastating effects of repressed feminist desires that Ibsen explores in Hedda Gabler; or even, employing a contemporary example, the incisive and wry examination of nineteenth century marriage and heterosexual relationships (through a twenty-first century prism) in A Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath.

Indeed, passion, deceitfulness, and the stultifying consequences of marriage are discussed among the characters, but except for an alluring moment in which Alland literally lets down Louise's hair, the perils and perks of free love remain purely hypothetical. In fact, the most compelling scene, which focuses on sexual ambivalence, occurs between Louise and the small town bank clerk, who wants to make her his wife. The two characters address each other using third-person references, and Mongillo and Connolly exquisitely maneuver the painfully awkward dance of attraction (his) and repulsion (hers).

The eight actors comprising the cast (most of whom do double and triple duty, and a few times appearing in cross-gender roles) are all quite likeable. Mongillo's fragile and blossoming Louise reminds me somewhat of Catherine Sloper from Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, and DeCapua is a handsome and enthralling young rake. Nevertheless, a shade more insidiousness and danger in his performance would raise the play's temperature. As Viggo and Lilly, Louise's attentive stepbrother and his lovesick fiancé, Paul Herbig and Claire Curtis-Ward are sweet and appealing. They reflect the possibility of a love that is caring, gentle, and perhaps lasting. As the been-there-done-that artist friend Erna, May is flirtatious and droll, but the scars of her own unhealed love wounds show through every now and then.

The play is presented with minimal sets and costumes, but occasional mournful chords from a cello (composed and performed by Ariana Karp) and, in particular, Morgan Zipf-Meister's effective lighting help conjure the mood. The periphery of the space is decorated with hanging lamps, lanterns, and bare bulbs. There is a mystical, fairytale-like feeling evoked, and this works well with the enchantment motif and the odd allusions to troll kingdoms to which Louise likens her circumstances.

While The Enchantment does not rise to the level of the best of Strindberg and Ibsen, the play provides a woman's perspective that is often neglected in theatre history. Near the end of the play Louise is forced to admit, "Free love isn't for everyone." Benedictsson's life and work reveal that it is women who more often than not ultimately bear the costs of such an arrangement.

The Enchantment
Through July 22
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue (Enter on Dominick, 1 block south of Spring.)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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