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Bastards of Strindberg

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz, Vanessa Johansson, and Devin B. Tillman
Photo by Kait Ebinger

Anything can happen on a midsummer's night. Shakespeare knew it, of course, and used the occasion to launch a timeless comedy. August Strindberg knew it as well, but his take on midsummer madness was far darker, a battle-to-the-death play rife with lust and issues of gender, class, and power called Miss Julie. Now we have Bastards of Strindberg, a compelling quartet of short plays produced by the Scandinavian American Theater Company that riff off Strindberg's themes and bring a contemporary flavor of their own.

The first of these—and the one that most effectively connects to the source—is called Chanting Hymns to Fruitless Moons, written by American playwright David Bar Katz. In it a middle aged Miss Julie, an icy Nordic beauty expertly performed by Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz, is determined to set the record straight after her story was co-opted by Strindberg, who "used what he wanted to use to make the points he wanted to make." She is joined onstage by her younger self (Vanessa Johansson), her erstwhile lover John (Devin B. Tillman), and her domineering father (Albert Bendix), as they enact the "true" and equally disturbing story of what took place the night of the Midsummer's Eve festivities.

The second and weakest entry is Midsummer at "Tyrolen" by Swedish playwright Lina Ekdahl. It takes place in a restaurant, where Julie (Rikke Lylloff), Jean (Mr. Bendix) and Kristin (Ms. Kullberg-Bendz) are discussing an imagined future where they all can escape their constrained lives. This is a theme that is explored in Miss Julie, in which Kristin (or Christine) is Jean's presumptive fiancée, but in this variation the characters come off as slacker dreamers and the play feels quite sketchy.

With High Powered, the third entry, American playwright Dominique Morisseau veers the most from the original but successfully shines a laser beam on one of Strindberg's key issues, that of the possibility of upward mobility for the downtrodden class. Darrin (Kwasi Osei) and Mya (an excellent Zenzele Cooper) are an African American couple on the verge of relocating from the Bronx to Manhattan, where Darrin has been offered a career-boosting sales position. The sharply written dialog focuses on Darrin's insistence on playing by the rules and Mya's questioning of the price they both are being asked to pay to achieve Darrin's goal.

The mood of the evening shifts completely with the final work, The Truth About Fröken Julie by Swedish playwright Andreas Boonstra. The play is a comic meta-theatrical deconstruction of Strindberg's play that calls attention to its conventions and plot contrivances. This is often quite funny, if occasionally over-the-top silly, well played by Ms. Johansson as Julie, Ms. Lylloff as Kristin, and Drew O'Kane as Jean. It certainly ends the evening on an upbeat note, more in tune with Shakespeare's vision of midsummer merriment than on Strindberg's bleak view.

The four plays that make up Bastards of Strindberg, now at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row and running 90 minutes without an intermission, are helmed by two directors. Alicia Dhyana House directs the first and fourth, and Henning Hegland does the honors for the second and third. The entire enterprise is held together by the consistency of Starlet Jacobs's set design, Nicole Wee's black and white costumes, Yuki Nakase's imaginative lighting, Lauren Camp's choreographic variations on the midsummer dances, and the haunting musical accompaniment by vocalist Anette Norgaard and violinist Elyssa Samsel.

Bastards of Strindberg
Through September 21
The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street at 9th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge