Monday, April 2, 2012

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

By Joe Straw

One can almost rest assured that Ibsen was not really thinking about ghosts as the floating paranormal images that frolic in front of the weary eyes of a half conscience person. Maybe he thought of ghosts as images that haunt the memories of someone’s reflective recollections.

The Edgemar Center for The Arts presents Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts directed and adapted by Doug Kaback and produced by Alexndra Guarnieri.  This is a fascinating production with outstanding production values.  And I'll have some reflections that haunt me about this fine productioon which I will address later. 

Upon entering the theater, one notices the beautiful set by Set Designer Travis Tuyen Thi.  It is a stunning recreation of the images Ibsen had in mind and resembles the imageries written in Ibsen’s play. It is splendid work on this small stage and nicely sets the mood of this very dark and moody drama.

As the play opens, the maid Regina (Lucy Honigman) is sprucing up the downstairs when her father, Jacob Engstrand (James Giordano), lame from a bar altercation, hobbles in from the pouring rain.  From the moment he enters, one notices their relationship is tenuous at best. Still there is a purpose for his visit today.

“I want you to come home with me, I say.” – Engstrand

“Never in this world shall you get me home with you.” – Regina

Regina says that Mrs. Alving treats her like a lady and she would never leave her current position to live and work with him.  Also, she doesn’t like the way he treats her, calls her names, and she is not fond of his excessive drinking.

Lately Engstrand has been towing the line and building the orphanage.  With the money he has saved he wants to open a sailor’s tavern.  He believes Regina, the nice pretty thing that she is, and particularly with a petticoat on, would do nicely around the sailors who will come from extended stays at sea to rest their weary bones.

But Regina thinks she has a good thing with Mrs. Alving. She is studying French on her own in the hopes that Osvald will take her to Paris soon.  Her mind is set on going to Paris and she is very ambitious maid.  Still, she has questions.

“How much money have you saved?” – Regina

“What with one thing and another, a matter of seven or eight hundred crowns.” – Engstrand.

So now Regina is slightly intrigued about getting a new dress out of the bargain but Engstrand has got his mind set on using his daughter for nefarious purposes.  This doesn’t sit well with Regina and she hustles him on his merry way out the door.     

When they hear another noise, Regina tells her father not to wake Osvald who is taking a nap upstairs. But the rustling noise is Pastor Manders shaking the rain from his umbrella and coat.  And as he comes in through the French doors Engstrand hustles himself out of another door.

Pastor Manders (Paul Stroili) hands his wet coat to Regina.  He has traveled a great distance to dedicate the opening of the orphanage and to have those papers reviewed by Mrs. Alving.  He is a self-righteous religious meddler whose order of business appears to be arranging the lives of his parishioners rather than putting his religious house in order.

“Your father is not a man of strong character, Miss Engstand.  He stands terribly in need of a guiding hand. “ -  Manders

Pastor Manders says he has spoken with Engstrand about Regina leaving Mrs. Alving and going back home to him.  But Regina will have none of this.  She feels she’s better than that, in fact she asks Manders to find her a nice place. He cuts her off and asks for the mistress of the house.

When Mrs. Alving (Michelle Danner) enters she is taken aback by the lack of Manders’ luggage.

“But where is your portmanteau?” – Mrs. Alving

“I left it down at the inn.  I shall sleep there to-night.” – Manders.

Pastor Manders is all business when it comes to their past relationship and Mrs. Alving is slightly disappointed that he is not going to be staying the night with her and Osvald.  

But Manders is a headstrong clerical businessman.  His religious views often get him sidetracked.  Seeing provocative books on the kitchen table, he scolds Mrs. Alvings’ literary readings, before he takes out “Captain Alving’s Foundations” and has her examine various papers. 

The orphanage will be run on the interest produced by the Foundation.  (So it must be a sizeable amount.) Then Manders surprises her.

“Shall the Orphanage buildings be insured or not?” – Manders

“Of course they must be insured.” – Mrs. Alvings

Manders convinces her that the building need not be insured because it will be consecrated and insured by a higher source.  And again Manders suggests to Mrs. Alving that Regina should go with her father.

Moments later, Mrs. Alving’s son, Osvald (Nate Golon) who has recently returned from Paris, enters carrying a hat and holding a large meerschaum.  The prodigal son has returned from France and together they all get reacquainted. Manders believes Osvald is there for the dedication ceremony. But later we learn Osvald has returned for another reason.

And this provides Manders with the opportunity to bring Osvald’s wicked ways in Paris to light and set him on the straight and narrow path. Osvald wants none of his lectures and leaves for a walk.

This gives Manders the occasion to turn his sights on Mrs. Alving and the complications between her and her husband in the first year of their marriage.  He accuses her of trying to desert her husband and being unwilling to bear the cross of that unhappy marriage.  Back then, Mrs. Alving ran to the arms of Pastor Manders.

“… and – nearly succeed in ruining other people’s reputation into the bargain.”  - Manders

“Other people’s?  One other person’s you mean.” – Mrs. Alving

“It was incredibly reckless of you to seek refuge with me.” – Manders

Manders then lets her have it by accusing her of being a terrible wife and mother.

After he has finished, Mrs. Alving, in a controlled manner, lowers the truth on Manders; the truth about her husband, the truth about Engstrand and the truth about Regina. She confesses to the many ghosts that have haunted her life.

After Manders leaves, we find out that something is wrong with Osvald, which is why he has come home.

“Where has the pastor gone to?” - Osvald

“I have just told you, he went down to the Orphanage.”  - Mrs. Alving

“Oh, yes, so you did.” – Osvald

Overall the acting was superb.  There are just some haunting moments I would like to address.

Michelle Danner as Mrs. Alving gives a convincing performance.  But lost on this opening night was the strong relationship she has with her counterpart, the Pastor.  They fight and tussle but only hint at the strong emotional commitment that I believe this production needed.  This commitment strengthens the characters’ objective and provides reasons for the conflict that erupt as they stand in the same room together without being able to escape.   Also, this characterization is of a kinder, gentler woman who I believe has a little more conniving tricks up her sleeve. Also, she needs to be more inquisitive.  Push at getting the truth before it’s too late for all concerned. But these are minor glitches that will be corrected as the production rolls along. Overall, this is a job well done.

Lucy Honigman has a lot of delightful moments but as the actor she needs a stronger more imaginative objective.  As the character she studies French because Osvald has suggested taking her there. But her relationship with Osvald should have more meaning and more levels.  She is a character that strives to better herself.  She tries to take control of her life, but she is stuck as a maid (of all things) unable to come to grips that she is never getting out of this predicament unless she forces the issue.  Also, she finds out her true identity in the end and takes it with a reserved modest emotion that it is inexplicable.  This is a revelation that must have her head spinning.  How could these people have treated her like a common maid!  As delightful as she was, the actor should be more precise in her movements on stage and her objective.

James Giordano was outstanding as Jacob Engstrand.  In fact his performance is worth the price of admission.  As the character, his hands are the instruments of his profession.  And as part of the developed character, his hands are used to extend his expressions of the moment. His hands work in a very artistic way to get what he needs while his legs plays upon the sympathies from those to which he seeks help.   He garners support and uses his limited but persuasive knowledge to reason with people who think he is unreasonable.  He is crude in his manner but that is the only way he knows how to get what he wants. Run to see his performance of this very fine actor.  One will only marvel at his technique.  

Nate Golon as Osvald did a fine job.  The opening moment he appeared on stage, he came out as the painting on the wall and it was this moment I noticed the hat was in the wrong hand and the pipe was as well, but was it a mirror image or a difference of the father and son characters? Golen gave us a lot of nice moments and some terrific silent emotional outburst that were fascinating to watch.  His character needs a big hidden secret.  It is there in the writing.  For example, he tells his mother he can’t work but lies about the reasons he can’t. He needs to hide the secret until he is ready to release the information. But, as the character, he is back for a reason and that reason is to convince someone give him the pills no matter what it takes.  That objective is not quite realized and once that is realized that should help in an already fine performance.

Paul Stroili as Pastor Manders was quite incredible.  As the character, he had a lot of pastoral issues in his way of thinking. Pastors cannot “always” be right. Still Manders fights for what he believes in and turns a blind eye to the obvious wrongs of the world.  His relationship with Mrs. Alving could have given us insights into his motives (whether they are sinister or not) because of what he has learned about the orphanage.  Several things we know for sure, he has had a long and tenuous relationship with Mrs. Alving, he knows about the dirty deeds of Mr. Alving, and he knows that Mrs. Alving really doesn’t care about the orphanage.  After that information is passed on to him, the orphanage burns to the ground.  One is not sure if it is coincidence or he acted out of love or self-preservation. Stroili goes after the character with vigor.  It is an unrelenting, fanatical display of spiritual coercion, and a job well done.

Dough Kuback did a fine job directing this truly fine production. There were moments in the beginning that need strengthening.  Actors were sent to various places on the set without purpose.  But, after the first the few moments, the play seemed to glide along as it should.  Relationships are critical in this play. There are deeper levels in the relationships that need to be explored, mother and son, mother and pastor (possible former lover), son and maid, brother and sister, etc. Also, some of the actors need to take those moments to the extreme, and settle on a choice that makes sense for the good of the play.

Kulback did a fine job with the adaptation.

Nate Golon, another producer, should also be commended for the very fine production values.  Alexandra Guarnieri should be commended as well. This production will only get better with each performance once things have settled down. 

The Light Designer was Rob Fritz and the wonderful costumes were by Maro Parian.

The wonderful photographs were provided by Seony Keo.

Press Representatives were Phil Sokoloff & Lori DeWaal.

One can't help but to cock the head slightly to the right and sadly ingeminate the words, "The sun.... The sun..." on the way out.

Go!  Through May 27th 2012

Reservations: 310-392-7327


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