Regional Reviews: San Francisco
An Intriguing Production of The Strindberg Plays
Also see Richard's review 33 Variations
Cutting Ball Theatre, known for cutting-edge productions, is presenting Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Rep though November 18th. Many theatre companies around the world have presented Miss Julie, but this marks the first time a company has produced five thematically linked plays that the playwright wrote, as a kind of suite near the end of his life. Ghost Sonata, The Pelican, The Black Glove, Storm and Burned House are being presented in repertory.
The Ghost Sonata
This is a tough play for any regional theatre group. It is considered a wonder of Modernist drama since there are plenty of bizarre twists. It is a very hard play to navigate, but director Rob Melrose and his design team, with the help of a large talented cast headed by James Carpenter playing the Old Man and Carl Holvick-Thomas playing The Student, have created a mesmerizing world.
Carpenter gives an absorbing performance as the elderly Jacob Hummel, entering the small intimate stage looking all but comatose in a wheelchair. He pushes and manipulates the play forward. Holvick-Thomas is engaging as the Student. There are a lot of wacky characters in this 80-minute play, including a mummy played spookily by Gwyneth Richards and a Dead Man wonderfully performed by Paul Gerrior. Michael Moerman is splendid as Johansson, servant to Hummel. Caitlyn Louchard fits well into this tyrannical world as the object of the Student's affection. Robert Parsons gives a strong performance as her father, the Colonel. David Sinaiko is flawless as Bengtsson, talking out of the side of his mouth, almost like a Chicago gangster.
Ponder Goddard, Danielle O'Hare, Alex Shafer, Nick Trengove and Anne Hallinan give impressive performances.
Michael Locher's very impressive set consisting of ever-shifting gothic cabinets is enriched by Anna Oliver's array of period costumes.
The Black Glove
This is a late chamber play that was barely produced in the dramatist's day, is rarely revived in Sweden, and hardly ever produced in this country. This is the most cheerful and redemptive of the five plays. Aficionados of Strindberg should see this interesting production of the playwright's version of A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life. The large ensemble cast are self-assured in their roles and there is little to nit-pick in terms of the performances.
The Black Glove takes place in a six-story apartment building where human souls are stacked on top of one another. An elderly Conservator (James Carpenter) discovers a ladies' black glove in the lobby. At the same time a kindhearted janitor (Robert Parsons) is trying to find the short circuit that keep blacking out the building. An elegant and arrogant young mother (Danielle O'Hare) accuses one of her intimidated servants of stealing (Caitlyn Louchard) her missing emerald ring.
The electrical power keeps going on and off, and the glove disappears and reappears in new places because there are magical forces at work. It is Christmas Eve and suddenly the audience sees a wizened Gnome (David Sinaiko) sporting a white beard and The Angel of Christmas (Gwyneth Richards) with a silver crown moving about, moving things around, causing the residents to wonder what the hell is going on. The Gnome does what the playwright does besthe makes the characters suffer through the 100 minute production.
One problem I had with this production is the staging, on a long rectangular stage with the audience sitting about 20 feet from the large cast of characters. An important and extended dialogue with the Gnome and the The Conservator takes place at the far right side of the stage. As a result, those sitting on the left side have a hard time seeing and hearing this beautiful poetical dialogue.
Director Rob Melrose's production is heavy on tone, and he captures the long ordeal of the play's suffering characters, stressing the visual and verbal poetry. James Carpenter is excellent as the kindly old "philosopher king," as is David Sinaiko playing the mischievous and impish Gnome. Robert Parsons, Caitlyn Louchard, Anne Hallinan, Ponder Goddard, Danielle O'Hare and Gwyneth Richards all give imaginative performances.
Kudos to Michael Locher who uses the shifting gothic cabinets to represent various rooms in the apartment building. Anna Oliver's Victorian garb for the cast and Lighting Designer York Kennedy's innovative lighting also earn praise.
On the whole, The Black Glove is a challenging play and concept both for the actors and the audience.
Strindberg's 1907 play about a woman who has an abnormally close relationship with her son-in-law is at once categorical and realistic, on the surface at least. Some of the dialogue resembles a word-perfect transcript of conversation so inexplicable that it leaves reality behind. You could say that The Pelican is a modern chamber version of Hamlet and Electra.
A family implodes following the death of the patriarch, with long-buried truths coming to light in the wake of painful changes. At the story's center is mother and widow Elsie (Danielle O'Hare), who may or may not have been responsible for her husband's death. Her son Fredrik (Nick Trengove) and maid Margaret (Gwyneth Richards) hold her responsible, while Gerda (Caitlyn Louchard) takes a more charitable view of her mother. Gerda's new husband Axel (Carl Holvick-Thomas) is also fond of his mother-in-law, and the newlyweds plan to move in with Elise in the family's apartment, a development that Fredrik does not like.
Elsie is the personification of an "evil" mother since she has driven her husband to the grave, and has half-starved her son and daughter, gorging on choice morels for herself and giving the rest to the children. She even attends an operetta which for some reason is a mortal frivolousness in the playwright's ideology. She makes lewd advances toward her son-in-law. At the climax, the drunken son sets fire to the house. Mother leaps into the flames as brother and sister clasp each other in an incestuous embrace. The scenario is garish but closely treads on farce.
Danielle O'Hara's performance as Elise is resourceful. She performs the role as a figure of both contempt and pity. Nick Trengove gives a volatile performance as the alcoholic son Fredrik. Carl Holvick-Thomas is fine as the avaricious Axel while Caitlyn Louchard gives a focused portrayal of Gerda. Gwyneth Richards gives a good performance in the small role of Margaret the maid. Also in the background with no speaking roles are Ponder Goddard, Anne Halinan and David Sinaiko as servants.
Director Rob Melrose's biggest success is the degree to which he brings out and amplifies the level of voluptuous tension between the characters. Most seem slightly noxious in their dealings with one another. This is a bold undertaking by the Cutting Ball Company, a one theatre group flexing their ambitions and trying out innovative ideas.
Reviews of the final two plays in the Strindberg Cycle, Burned House and Storm, will follow. The cycle continues through November 18th. There will be a Chamber Play Marathon of all five shows in one day. Tickets and information can be secured at www.cuttingball.com or by calling 415-525-1205