A particularly bleak winter has come to the stage at The Rogue Theatre, as the company mounts a dour but gripping production of the classic play Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906).
Ibsen's approach to his 1881 work might be described as clinical. Influenced by advances in science and the writing of Charles Darwin, the Norwegian playwright used his dramas to cut open and expose the hypocrisy he saw festering in society.
Considered particularly shocking in its day, Ghosts is the tragic story of a widow's undoing. Over the course of a single night, Mrs. Helene Alving is utterly destroyed by her unsympathetic pastor, a conniving carpenter, her self-absorbed son and the lingering reverberations of her late husband's infidelity. Secret after secret is revealed with all the suspense of a murder-mystery, but no hope is to be found in its resolution.
What little humor there is in The Rogue production is often derived from some of the (thankfully) outdated attitudes of the day, such as the belief that buying insurance shows a lack of faith in divine protection. But many of the issues laid bare still touch a nerve: science versus religion, the definition of marriage, assisted suicide and the double standard involving sexual behavior for women and men.
Under the steady hand of director David Morden, this production doesn't soften the edges of this difficult material. Instead, it keeps its characters believably flesh-and-blood, holding the audience riveted even as the tragedy inexorably unfolds. The Rogue's Ghosts is beautifully rendered and remarkably performed.
The beating heart of this production is Cynthia Meier as Mrs. Alving. Dressed in purple-velvet finery (Meier also designed the costumes), Mrs. Alving at first brings a cheerful, bubbling, open-hearted light to her desolate Nordic home. Meier's performance is so winningly sincere that your heart immediately goes out to her, hoping that fate will be kind.
But even the setting suggests a world in which light will not survive. The black curtains lining The Rogue's performance space have never felt so oppressive. Joseph McGrath's design uses a few simple pieces of furniture, flanked by two doors with pillars that ascend up into blackness. A central window frames glowering skies, and Clint Bryson's lighting only seems to enhance the gloom.
Soon, Mrs. Alving's mask falls, and we see the level of effort it has required for her to maintain her cheerful demeanor to the outside world. Meier makes us believe each new layer of Mrs. Alving's emotional makeup as it is revealed, right through to her final, wrenching desperation.
Opposing Mrs. Alving in what is, in some ways, a formal debate about freedom versus social strictures is her ever-righteous friend and business adviser, Pastor Manders. McGrath plays Manders with an impenetrable blockheadedness, a quality that saves the minister from being an outright villain—he cannot be intentionally cruel, because it does not occur to him that his actions could be anything but right.
McGrath also clearly makes Manders a man who has been shaped by a lifetime of self-denial and social pressure. There is a heart beating beneath his rigid formality—his carnal instincts flicker briefly in conversation with Mrs. Alving's comely maid—but it has been flattened out and forgotten.
Added to the mix is Mrs. Alving's son, Oswald (Robert Anthony Peters), a painter who has recently returned home from living the liberated life of an artist in Rome. Mrs. Alving has bowed endlessly to the expectations of others in order to preserve Oswald's happiness, but she soon learns that her efforts were wasted. Peters delivers a performance that expertly leads his character from charismatic charm to self-doubt to desperation, as if each new secret revealed adds an extra burden for him to carry.
Jill Baker plays Regina Engstrand, the Alvings' maid. Regina's character keeps changing: She seems manipulative when she first appears, but then she metamorphoses into a sweet, docile creature. The first impression of her character is doubted and forgotten until she reveals her calculating nature in the third act. But Baker makes Regina a figure of pity as well, clearly a creature of her manmade environment.
Brian Taraz brings a lighter touch to the role of Regina's father, Jacob Engstrand. His performance as a bumbling simpleton doesn't quite match the Machiavellian cunning that Engstrand displays in the path of self-advancement, but it provides a welcome relief to the misery around him.
As fine as this production is, its rewards are more artistic than pleasurable. Ibsen was a dedicated examiner of society's cancers, but his medicinal theater can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Fortunately, The Now Theatre provides easy access to some sugar to help Ghosts go down. The Now's production of Overruled is on The Rogue's stage just a half-hour later, and I cannot recommend strongly enough that the two be viewed together.
Overruled is another historical work, this one penned by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Written a generation after Ghosts, Shaw's 1912 Overruled tackles similar thorny material—personal choice versus social norms. While Shaw's characters are not as richly drawn as Ibsen's, he discovered the benefit of humor in making his argument palatable.
Lasting just 45 minutes, this one-act is essentially an extended comic sketch in which a married man is carrying on with a married woman—only to discover that their spouses are carrying on with each other as well. Each couple is happy with the idea of sharing their partners now and then ... but is that the proper English way to behave?
Armed with Shaw's rapier witticisms, the extraordinary cast of college-age performers is laugh-out-loud funny in their portrayal of these lusty-but-proper Victorian cartoons.
Jennifer Rose Hijazi is hysterical as the high-maintenance yet naïve Mrs. Juno; she's well-matched with Nic Adams' Mr. Lunn, a romantic dandy. Providing a nice contrast, Danielle Hecht plays Mrs. Lunn, a world-weary, alcohol-swilling man magnet in need of some novelty. Lucas Gonzales, as the philosophizing Mr. Juno, serves as the voice of society, arguing for propriety while excusing his own misconduct.
Like all of the actors, director Daniel Thomson is a UA theater student. He has his ensemble moving at a lightning-quick pace, which keeps the energy high and the laughs coming. The staging is deliberately artificial, almost like choreography, and beautifully suits the shallow, preening characters.
Overruled is the perfect way to warm up after the cold Norwegian winter of Ghosts. Together, each play makes the other more enjoyable and more meaningful than it would be on its own.