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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Ibsen's Ghosts at Cutting Edge of
21st Century Culture Wars

Also see Bob's review of Karen Akers' Time After Time

Kenneth Boys (foreground), Michael Aquino and Mona Hennessey
Henrik Ibsen's 1881 Ghosts is a towering masterwork of Western theatre, and this will be manifestly apparent to all who see the mostly exemplary production which it is receiving at Montclair's Luna Stage.

The most controversial and shocking of Ibsen's plays, Ghosts' topics include infidelity, incest, alcoholism, religious hypocrisy and euthanasia. Even more controversially, Ibsen broadly and bitingly opposed the moral underpinnings of his society. Of course, what was shocking in 1882 is no longer shocking today. What is shocking is that the underlying issues are essentially identical to those fueling today's debate between the conservative religious right and the liberal urban left.

Ibsen's first play after A Doll's House, Ghosts is in part an answer to those who thought it was immoral for Nora to walk out on Torvald and their children. In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving is a Nora who was convinced to remain in a loveless marriage. Ibsen dramatizes the disastrous results.

Ten years after her husband's death, we find Mrs. Alving in her rural Norway home where she is planning for the dedication of an orphanage which she has endowed and which will honor her late husband. Home from his residence in Paris for the occasion is her artist son Oswald. On hand from town is Pastor Manders, who almost thirty years earlier had convinced Mrs. Alving not to leave her philandering husband.

Mrs. Alving now informs Manders that her husband never stopped his profligate ways and that she has had a painful and unhappy marriage which has been devoted to preserving her husband's reputation with all, including Oswald. Mrs. Alving has become convinced that her misery has been for naught, that truth must be recognized and openly faced, and that the ghosts of the past will never the less exert their influence. We will soon learn of their dreadful toll on Mrs. Alving's son Oswald as well as on her attractive young servant Regina. A scavenger at this table of grief is Jacob Engstrand, the boorish, opportunistic putative father of Regina.

Mona Hennessy performs Mrs. Alving with quiet assurance and dignity. Having come to the conclusion that the fulfillment of the human spirit trumps the restrictions of conventional morality, Hennessy displays a quiet confidence in the face of the ignorant and pompous accusatory pontifications of Manders. Hennessy blends in the timorousness which has destroyed her life. All of this contributes to her poignant believability at the end of act three.

Kenneth Boys is the perfect embodiment of Pastor Manders. Boys conveys all of the noted negative aspects of Manders yet manages to manifest the childish innocence which Mrs. Alving finds attractive, including his both innocent and willful abilities to blind himself to his own odiousness.

The passion, pain, anger and desperation of Oswald and Regina are well conveyed by Michael Aquino and Bethany Butler. Butler is especially fine when her expression and bearing display her pride and joy at being asked to sit at table with Mrs. Alving and Oswald.

Amy Ricthings' costumes for the aforementioned quartet are excellent, evocative of period, suitable and defining each role. Arthur Kopit's fluid, natural sounding translation hews closely to traditional ones.

There are two major aspects of this production which do not work. Given the truly excellent work that [Luna Stage Artistic Director] director Jane Mandel has done on all the other aspects of the production, it is difficult to understand these lapses which fall into the "what were they thinking?" category.

As directed by Mandel (who happens to be his wife), Frankie Faison give a performance that is jarringly out of context. His portrayal of Jacob Engstrand is comprised of a stereotypical accent and pattern of speech, and a series of mannerisms that would be at home in a dated, insensitive movie set on a Southern plantation. During the opening scene, I kept wondering whether Mandel had reset the play in the American south. Now Faison is a distinguished actor with a very impressive list of performances to his credit. He also has a natural, larger than life stage presence. Why not rely on the courser speech and false obsequiousness built into the script to distinguish Engstrand societal status from the others?

The second problem is the set design of Fred Kinney. The unusual set would make for a gorgeous installation at the new MOMA, but it is antithetical to any traditional interpretation of Ibsen. This ambitious and artistically innovative company reconfigures its space for each new production. For Ghosts, the audience is seated on two sides running the width of the space with the long narrow stage between them. A table, several chairs and divan, and a parquet floor are the basic scene elements. So far, so good. But then at each end, the floor rises (with its parquet pattern, seems to swirl) into a large arc all the way to the ceiling. There are various objects (chairs at one end, trees and planters at the other) attached at various angles along the arches. This creates a surreal and distracting sense of being in the middle of a whirlwind.

Peer Gynt notwithstanding, Ibsen is considered a pioneer of the modern naturalistic drama. Ghosts is set on a grey and desolate fjord. The house is stifling, the area foreboding. A non-traditional production in which the events are seen in the fevered minds of the characters could explain the scenery. However, in a largely traditional production, this set only competes with and distracts from the play and actors. Fortunately, given the width of the stage, you can largely keep the swoosh out of sight and mind.

Overall, this production of Ibsen's Ghosts should not be missed. It is an exceptional play which largely is extremely well acted and directed. It is rare that one encounters a play in which a compelling narrative combines so persuasively with a contemporarily relevant social and philosophical point of view.

Ghosts continues performances through December 12, 2004 at Luna Stage, 695, Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042; Box Office: 973-744-3309; online

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen; translation by Arthur Kopit; directed by Jane Mandel
Oswald Alving .......... Michael Aquino
Pastor Manders .......... Kenneth Boys
Regina .......... Bethany Butler
Jacob Engstrand .......... Frankie Faison
Mrs. Alving .......... Mona Hennessy

Photo: EJ Carr

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