All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Life and death is a constant Bergman theme. So is the real from the artificial. Especially when it comes to theater and storytelling.
I think the reason I like Bergman, and artists I associate with him, the playwright Tom Stoppard and the novelist and essayist Julian Barnes, is the clarity and surgical methods he uses to cut through the imagined, perceived, or acted to cut to the genuine. Even when the means of arriving at or expressing the authentic is crafted and plotted by a writer, and therefore is artificial by definition, the presentation of the real is foremost and stands out from any contrivance or posturing.
Bergman is more stark and narratively simple than the other writers I’ve mentioned. Or, perhaps, more artfully deceptive. Stoppard isn’t nearly as direct. He tends to create a brisk whirl of thoughts and ideas as he exposes the corruption in academia, science, literature, diplomacy, and journalism via witty plays that usually pit one glib truth seeker against equally sharp people who are sophistically or conveniently confusing/exchanging the genuine for a concept or world that suits them better, usually because it is less exact or demanding. Or because it’s easier to accept a status quo that may be corrupt.
Barnes, who I regard as Stoppard’s prose counterpart, also pierces through the pomp, adulteration, self-aggrandizing, and sheeplike following to get to the essence of authenticity. Barnes even puts the unauthentic into keen perspective when,, in a brilliant passage in his “A History of the World in 10-and-a-Half Chapters” he uses Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” to justify why artistic works do not have to portray historical events accurately.
Suffice it to say Bergman, Stoppard, and Barnes all strive to get past the inventions, perversions ,pretensions, interpretations, interpolations, and skewing that occurs when people talk about aspects of life and the stories that explain them. They are artists who know the real from the gloss they often put on it.
Bergman is the one who seeks and tries to define the most purity. But being a master at the cinematic and theatrical milieus of Pretend, he also knows how elusive the pure is and how common opinion and our individual minds obscure it and keep it from prevailing. Particular when our minds or our professions require us to think about how to behave or how to counterfeit genuine emotions artistically.
In his movies, Persona” (1966) and “After the Rehearsal” (1984), he specifically examines the differences in the actual lives we lead, and our personal perceptions of the world, from the characters and the internal reality imposed by a playwright or screenwriter. He zeroes in on where an artist’s personal life ends and where existence as seen and imposed by the artist, a persona, takes over. In both pieces, the line becomes a blur. In “Persona,” an actress is suddenly so stricken by the falsehood and artifice of portraying others and speaking their emotions, she goes mute midway through a contemporary performance of one of the ancient Greek renditions of “Electra” and remains silent for the next several years. To borrow from another Greek story, the actress, like Hamlet, wonders who is she to Hecuba or Hecuba to her that she should weep for her. The thought of all she is feigning, and how convincingly she does it, overwhelms the actress and makes her stop acting, not only on stage but in life. She doesn’t want to be a character or even contend with the small performances we spontaneous give to wend our way through everyday life. The simple acceptance of the elements, with some literature for diversion and undisclosed reverie for a companion, are enough.
Or are they?
The question then comes, “If one is pretending to be mute, or even choosing silence, when she is perfectly capable of speaking and expressing herself beautifully, is that not as artificial as reading a playwright’s lines and wringing emotion from a audience by portraying and reflecting the emotions of someone who happens to be a character in a play?” Is pretending, or choosing to be unable to speak, any less a pose or any less self-conscious that representing a mood or sentiment of stage, not to mention in theater of life?
You can see the way Bergman sets me to thinking. Usually, I am examining and philosophizing right along with him. In the movie of “After the Rehearsal,” for instance, I ponder the ideas of an actor getting lost in a script or figuring out how to do a role in a way that makes sense to him or her. In Bergman, the words and ideas occupy me more than the emotions or the byplay between the characters. That doesn’t happen because there is no action, in the case of “After the Rehearsal” even intense individual action. It happens because Bergman, in the films mentioned, places the intellectual arguments being raised above the seductions, rejections, accusations, and consummated sexual acts that are also vital parts of the scenes he is showing.
When Ivo van Hove’s Dutch troupe, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, performed “After in Rehearsal” and “Persona as stage pieces, in Swedish with Dutch accents during the Fringe Festival, I was transported by the affect acting and the emotions, insecurities, and artificialities of it, have on individuals in the theater. In the stoic, couchedly flirtatious director, Vogler, his uncertain young muse, Anna, and the veteran star, Rachel, who uses her talents and techniques to get what she wants from life the same her characters angle for what they want on stage, I saw people who went way beyond their stated philosophies to be flesh-and-blood people who, with varying success, had to cope with the way their profession warps and plays with reality. The relationship between Anna and Rachel, who are daughter and mother, came through in a way it’s doesn’t in Bergman’s movie, probably because Anna remains on stage for Rachel’s entire scene, which differs from the movie. The confusion, or warring desires, in Vogler is also more pronounced.
The plight of the characters had an immediacy from which we are distanced when we watch the films. Van Hove’s style is aggressive and physical even when his characters are still. While Bergman also had his actors interact intimately, they seemed to be illustrating a point instead of living their uncertainties and desires. Perhaps that posits a fundamental difference between screen and stage. Pictures illustrate. Live action seems more feral, more intense, and more authentic. Film is a medium. Theater is immediate. There’s nothing between the audiences and the performers. A distance fomented by films is broached, and characters have to be bigger, more involved.
Van Hove’s actors always kept an underlying sexual tension in their scenes. They didn’t seem as stoic or as willing to discuss intellectually the matters that were on their mind. Even calm moments had undercurrents of tension, distinctly sexual tension,, and Vogler and Rachel in particular kept you on your toes about what they might do next. Vogler, being a director, looked to be testing where he sat, where he placed himself in relation to Anna or Rachel, and how it affected a moment or altered the mood of his time, separate time, spent with each of the women. It was almost as if he couldn’t relinquish the stager’s role of determining how different angles, points of view, and proximities strengthen or soften an audience’s perception of what is happening, as if he wanted sometimes to experience exquisite, discipline demanding tension and, other times, to be conspicuously aloof or irresistibly predatory. If not the heart, one’s reflexes and viscera, the feelings connected with sexual attraction as opposed to love, were as stimulated in one’s brain during the Toneelgroep’s performance. Gijs Scholten von Aschat fascinated as Vogler, and Gaite Jansen maintained an edge as the nervous but determined Anna, but the extraordinary Marieke Heebink displayed and elicited raw emotion as the damaged but catlike Rachel, forever taking off and putting on her coat in a quandary whether to storm out or remain in Vogler’s austerely unyielding presence. Heebink rivets you with her stunning portrayal of neurosis, the physicality of which she’s capable, and the way she conveys all through the shadow of alcohol and self-neglect that informs her character’s almost wasted life. She has remarkable clarity about all that happened and how the rest might play out. The performance is stunning to watch. It mesmerizes. It also makes you want to see more of Heebink and wish she will some day do a role in English so we can more closely and vividly experience her way of making every line Rachel utters almost a spoken assault.
Heebink is no less outstanding as the actress gone mute in “Persona,” but it is in the middle portion of the three-pronged “After the Rehearsal” in which she show how the great artifice of acting, when done with abandon and no self-consciousness, leads one to truths and revelations that make reality clear and speak volumes about human experience and authenticity.
Jansen is also riveting in “Persona,” as excellent a piece of theater as it is a classic movie. Yet, as strong and moving as “Persona” is, it was “After the Rehearsal,” by far the less affecting and effective of the Bergman films, that showed the power of acting and the alluring quality of van Hove’s style, at once intense intellectually, physically, and emotionally.
Scholten, Jansen, and Heebink have you on as much edge as they keep their taut and tension-fraught characters.
Scholten is magnificent in “After the Rehearsal.” He is as wily as his character, the director, Vogler, in convincing us he lurks on set once a day’s rehearsals for his fifth production of Strindberg’s difficult “A Dream Play” are completed so he can relax in solitude, read a book or the newspaper, cogitate privately over Strindberg’s script, or just take a catnap away from the bustle of his professional or private life.
Scholten’s Vogler seems at home reading quietly on the sofa he pressed back into theatrical service after previously having used it in “Hedda Gabler.” At initial glance, he is a man who is assured, imperturbable, and truly allowing the tensions of his day to fade into the tranquility of the empty “Dream Play” set.
Jansen’s Anna enters, and the entire dynamic changes. Anna is a 23-year-old assaying a pivotal role, her first of true significance in the Swedish theater. Vogler has seen her in local plays and hated her performances while believing someone who’s work is so misguided is not incompetent and ill-suited for the stage, but a genius whose talent must be nurtured and sculpted into shape.
Anna is also the daughter of two of Vogler’s longest-standing colleagues. Her father is a theater star respected by his peers as much as he’s lauded by his fans. Her mother, Rachel, is an actress of prodigious talent who leaves the stage voluntarily to tend to her family but who never gets the stage out of her blood and takes small parts or uses her theatrical gifts to win squabbles and play on people’s emotions in her increasingly sad personal life.
Anna played with Vogler’s daughter, a few months older, when they were children. Vogler chose her for near obscurity to play Agnes, the immortal woman who, in “A Dream Play,” is brought to Earth to listen to people from various walks to life and to comfort them while not flinching from difficult truths when they need to be told.
Anna is insecure about playing Agnes. She thinks she is too young. She worries she never played a part as complex. She can’t understand why Vogler entrusted her with the role.
She says she’s returned to the rehearsal hall to find a bracelet that must have slipped off as she went through her scenes. The audience can see an attraction to Vogler underlies her coming to a place she knows the director remains after the day’s work. The audience can see that Vogler shares the attraction and is surprised but pleased to see Anna in a situation where they can talk alone and personally. Vogler is ahead of Anna in one thing. He knows she wore no bracelet to the rehearsal.
Complicating matters is Vogler’s relationship with Anna’s parents, also professional and personal, especially since it’s Swedish theater legend that Vogler slept with the mother, Rachel, while maintaining a close friendship with her father, reported to be one of the finest actor of his time.
The intellectual is present, there for reflection. But van Hove’s production takes a turn from Bergman’s film. The cat-and-mouse game between Vogler and Anna is more pronounced and more visceral. You can smell the pheromones as Anna and Vogler dance around talking about Strindberg, Agnes, whether to move or stay perfectly still during a crucial scene but are primed to repeat the intimate acts Vogler enjoyed with Anna’s mother. Artifice multiplies exponentially, as Vogler and Anna discuss what is necessary for the play and how acting is a pose that sometimes influences one’s personal life but also hint at the relationship that must almost be gotten out of the way if the professional work is to take any precedence.
After a rehearsal, Anna and Vogler are people, and people who live in close touch with their emotions and the expression of them. Van Hove can ask for the subtle and the violent, sometimes simultaneously. Scholten obliges by showing great strength and masculine power when needed. He can also be a great tease, claiming to move from where he seems comfortably seated to gauge the tension caused if he sits closer to, almost on top of Anna.
Jansen adds to van Hove’s vision by seeming sincere and curious. She also persuades that Anna is in a quandary and needs Vogler professionally to make a success of Agnes, no light role that can be tossed off without some attitude and strategy underpinning a performance.
Jansen betrays some inexperience, while playing both an actress is distress and a woman who would like to suppress her feelings towards Vogler but who knows those feeling must be dealt with if she going to conquer the challenge the role of Agnes has become for her.
I mentioned that van Hove has the advantage on Bergman when it comes to staging Rachel’s scene in “After the Rehearsal.”
Although you hear Rachel has retired from acting, has been institutionalized, is unable to resist addictions, and has a knack for dramatizing her life and using lines from plays and actors’ ruses to get what she wants, you are unprepared for the vibrant, energetic, feral, and enigmatic character Rachel is.
Much more than in Bergman’s film, Rachel is an aging virago. The scene in which she appears is not contemporaneous with the scenes involving Anna, They take place much earlier, when Anna is a child and when Rachel is just beginning to relinquish the theater and fade into the torpor that will consign her to a government hospital in her later years, years in which Vogler continues to work at top form.
Heebink hides nothing. She leaves no emotion or thought unexpressed, and the 23rd Street Armory, where van Hove’s productions appeared, crackle with electricity when Heebink is on stage.
Her Rachel is a ball of nerves. She doesn’t know whether she is welcome or a hindrance, to stay or go. She expresses this confusion by constantly putting on or taking off her coat, in either instance with lightning speed and understood purpose. This business takes place seamlessly with Rachel’s ranting at Vogler for professional and personal reasons. Anna is mentioned in some of Rachel’s dialogue, and you can tell she is yet a child who would be no interest to Vogler.
Friendship and old time’s sake sentimentally flourish in Rachel’s speeches. So does Rachel’s attachment to Vogler and her need to resume sexual relations with him in addition to accepting an almost charitable two-line part in his upcoming production. The infinitesimal size of the role, and Rachel’s desire to be cast in at least one more lead before she drinks or depresses herself to oblivion, is the ostensible reason she comes to see Vogler when, once again, she knows he will be seeking leisure in the theater following a rehearsal.
Heebink exudes raw need as she presses Vogler to tell her why he assigned her such a meager role, reminisces about good times she and her husband has with the Voglers, and seeks to renew their sexual liaison. Heebink’s Rachel reeks of neediness and vulnerability while spewing occasional venom and being as seductive as her faded fortunes allow her to be.
Vogler is intrigued, so the sparring between Heebink and Scholten is heightened. The audience gets involved, though curiously, is ambiguous about whether they want Rachel to prevail and get the redemption her addled being believes will put her back on the path to mental health.
Heebink dominates the proceedings. She is like Hurricane Rachel, entering in high dudgeon as if fleeing a storm and staying at a feverish pitch as she woos Vogler and talks about her lot in life.
Because of working live with all of the actors present. van Hove can keep Anna on stage for the duration of Rachel’s scene. It’s almost as if Anna is witnessing her mother coming to Vogler for various kinds of aid, including sexual, years before she did the same. Anna and Rachel rarely interact, but there is one telling moment when they stare into each other’s eyes and even touch hands.
Van Hove also shows Vogler’s penchant as a director, using cameras to catch and view Anna is specific poses and using gestures that might contribute to her portrayal of Agnes.
Heebink’s telling physicality also aids greatly in “Persona,” in which, by playing a mute character, she has fewer lines than Rachel complains about in “After the Rehearsal. Heebink convinces you that Elisabeth, her “Persona” character, truly enjoys her inner peace and doesn’t want to be coaxed back into speaking, let alone acting.
The irony is she is playing a 24-hour role as she listens to Jansen’s Alma and even expresses amusement at the idea someone might cause her to speak again.
Heebink and Jansen act out some violent moments as Alma, her nurse, handpicked to serve Elisabeth at times tries to shock Elisabeth into speech. Elisabeth’s passiveness can be frustrating, especially when she uses it to make it clear she remains in command. Also, Alma sometimes pushes too far. Elisabeth’s silence prompts Alma to fill the void by telling the story of her life, in its entirety, including some seamy adventures you wouldn’t expect from the prim, innocent-seeming companion.
“Persona,” played in subdued light and white or gray costumes that mirror the black-and-white of Bergman’s film, brings out the isolation the two women feel, enjoyable, in a remote coastal outpost in which the doctor treating Elisabeth and employing Anna has place them. It also forces a kind of personal code of communication between the women, Alma talking more and more often and candidly, Elisabeth listening and using facial expressions and body movement to show approval, understanding, or the opposite.
Heebink is astounding conveying her feelings non-verbally in “Persona” as she is expressing them dramatically in “After the Rehearsal.” Her face and posture reveal everything. The actress is a superior communicator who keeps you constantly aware of Elisabeth’s emotions and thoughts.
Jansen, impressive as the searching young actress in “After the Rehearsal,” unravels in measured doses in “Persona.” Alma moves from clinical and friendly and strategically engaging to verbose and overfamiliar. As she becomes more comfortable around Elisabeth, her professional role fades into an intimate camaraderie. We learn that Alma is not nearly the woman we took her to be, but much more worldly and experienced. Like Elisabeth, she has been playing a role, less scripted or structured but just as camouflaging of her actual personality.
Jansen makes her transitions with nimble aplomb. Alma’s change is gradual, but it seems to happen suddenly and has manifested itself before you realize it.
Scholten is effective in a brief role as Elisabeth’s husband, one who has to negotiate an advancing tide to reach the island on which she’s living. Frieda Pittoors is starkly clinical and straightforward as the doctor treating Elisabeth.
In one amazing moment in “Persona,” the walls that have been enclosing Elisabeth and Alma crash down and you see they are surrounded by water. The effect of the falling walls is dazzling, and the images of the characters in the water is also effective. The pool must have enticed the audience as well. The Bergman plays were performed on a sultry night in Philadelphia’s un-air conditioned 23rd Street Armory. Although the Fringe Festival provided cloth and plastic fans to ward off that heat, the water surrounding the stage looked quite inviting. I wish the audience has been invited to partake of it. As it was, it fascinated as a remarkable achievement, creating a pool in what is essentially a storage space.
Toneelgroep Amsterdam is a Dutch troupe telling a Scandinavian story. The troupe is adept at Swedish, but they reveal the Dutch in them when they say the gravelly “g” that sounds as if someone is clearing his or her throat, as In “chuten morchen,” as opposed to “guten morgen” for good morning and “ma-chik” instead of “ma-gik” for magic.
Physicality is also a hallmark of the Jo Strømgren Kompani, a Norwegian troupe that presented three pieces at the Fringe Festival, a symbol-filled staging of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” with a local cast that traveled to Norway to spend time with Strømgen and his company, and two dance-centered sketches, “There” and “The Border,” that are comic in approach but have much drama built into them/
Strømgren is his own set designer, and he has placed his actors on a stage surrounded by doll-sized furniture and props. His cast sit on small chairs close to the floor while the walls of the Helmer home curve in and have odd passages through which characters crawl and upon which they perch while business goes on within. The miniature set has particular comic value given the heft of Leonard C. Haas as Torvald and Pearce Bunting as Dr. Rank playing in contrast to it.
Some of Strømgren’s effects are interesting and enhance the atmosphere for Ibsen’s play. Certainly, the miniature furniture speaks volumes about the Helmers’ outwardly conventional life and Torvald’s near horror of not conforming or being exactly what the Helmers’ provincial town would expect them to be. The tiny chairs, tea cups, and random accoutrements are comic and give Strømberg’s production wit and texture. They not only represent Ibsen’s theme of Nora living a protected existence and being able to decorate in any way she chooses but the pinched nature of Torvald, who seems to allow Nora liberty but regulates her life and keeps it small.
Some other choices seem excessive, such as the shipping-crate structures that represent sections of the Helmers’ house or the illustrating of a reference to Torvald and Nils Krogstad playing games of cowboys and Indians as children by having Krogstad on one rooftop shooting an arrow from a bow into Torvald’s leg, Torvald being on an opposite roof. Then again, Strømgren derives dramatic energy from characters getting so angry of frustrated, they push the house over during emotional outbursts. It’s also fun to see the robust Bunting attempt to stay out view as he lurks about surreptitiously in hopes of hearing a conversation between Nora and Torvald.
Strømgren’s ideas continued to fall into categories of “inspired” or “gratuitous.” The performance was always lively, but at times it seemed labored and self-conscious.
Strømgren is a choreographer, and movement is much a part of his scheme. The dances Nora Dr. Rank do are stylized and sensuous in a way that is different from formal dancing but suggestive of the ideas Ibsen presents when Nora practices the tarantella in a less stylized production of “A Doll’s House.”
Movement may be Strømgren’s metier, and much of it engages and reveals much about the relationship between the characters. Dr, Rank’s death throes towards the end of Strømgren’s production are particularly effective, and Bunting performs them adroitly enough to be simultaneously comic and dramatic. True power comes less from the dances and physical aspects that from the sharp focus Strømgren and company bring to the narrative. Ibsen’s two-hour play is presented in an efficient, effective 70 minutes, Despite this condensing, nothing essential is missing, and much is enhanced and made clearer than usual, in particular Torvald’s conservativism and paternal stance towards Nora, and the precise perspective in which Nora’s life-changing “offense,” forging her father’s signature to obtain cash to take Torvald on a life-saving outing from Norway to the Dolemites, is presented.
Parallels between the harmless crime Nora committed for love and a similar offense Krogstad committed for equally important reasons show the hypocrisy of late 19th century Norway in clear and stark ways. In Strømgren’s view, Krogstad, though devilish with that bow and arrow, shows more ability to conquer his resentment through reason and humanity than Torvald, possibly because Krogstad responds to the affection shown by Nora’s school chum, Kristina Linde, while Nora and Torvald only play at affection and create a void when physical or even spiritual support is needed. Nora commits a minor crime to give Torvald a chance at restored health, but her act is kept secret. It isn’t shared with Torvald or done in a way that involves two people soothing one another and working together to make tense matters into manageable ones. Torvald’s reversal when he knows Nora is to be spared exposure for her peccadillo, a boon Krogstad bestows but did not enjoy, is even more repugnant than usual because Haas’s Torvald has been more bullying and misogynistic than most and because Suli Holum looks so much more desperate than most Noras for Torvald to understand and empathize with her plight as it comes to a climactic head. Haas’s rigid, reputation-conscious Torvald belies the image of the sweet, only slightly scolding husband who would find Nora too cute and untutored to abandon. He is a true pillar of the community who will brook no irregularity and who intends to break Nora of her frivolous ways, by force if necessary. Appearances, in the form of cosmetic superficiality and favorable perceptions, matter as much to Haas’s Torvald as affection or understanding for another person would. Haas’s Torvald comes off as crueler and more exacting than many, even though Strømgren edited out the Helmer children so Torvald doesn’t have estrangement from them to hold over Nora’s head.
Suli Holum may be too cheerful, playful, and naïve a Nora in the beginning. There’s something artificial about her constant laughter and gaiety. Especially in this production in which Strømgen demands stylization but uses the effects of his movements and directorial choices to heighten reality and make Nora’s situation palpably urgent.
Blessedly, Mary Lee Bednarek’s supremely sensible Mrs. Linde enters, and Holum quickly shows you her earlier portrayal of Nora’s trivial nature is an act that hides a woman of action and capability, even if she is still a tad unfamiliar with some ways of the world.
Holum’s Nora grows markedly. She proves she can be as prepared as Mrs. Linde when action is called for. She just doesn’t know to be as cautious or private.
Business dealings, reactions to them, and the importance of them color Strøgren’s “Doll’s House” more than ideas of feminism or independence. They are significant byproducts that arise when Nora becomes unclouded about the genuine nature of business and the price the world can exact when one strays from how convention says it must be done. Let alone the law proscribing certain acts that Ibsen makes seem excusable in context but that courts would not excuse, as they didn’t in Krogstad’s case.
It is catching up with what others know of the world that influences Nora and gives her the resolve and courage she needs to pursue something different and more meaningful than what she has with Torvald.
Of the entertaining and clever part of Strømgren’s design add to the enjoyment of his production. Any excesses are excused by the sharpness and forthrightness with which the director presents Nora’s story. Strømgren makes this theme the authentic working of the world and how one must know them and act within its rules. He shows a woman caught up in machinations and systems she doesn’t understand. And a woman who is disappointed as an individual when her vision of marriage, romance, and partnership are as upset as her innocent notions about business.
People came through for Nora, but they weren’t the people she counted on nor the ones from whom she wanted the most empathy and kindness. In Strømgren’s Norway, Nora’s eyes have to be opened in ways that demand some action on her part. In his “A Doll’s House,” Nora’s leaving Torvald is not a choice but a foregone necessity. Strømgren has modernized for the 21st century what Ibsen presented as modern in the 19th. His collapsing set, miniature furniture, and precarious tunnels are all window dressing because none of it would matter if he didn’t mount such interesting confrontations between Nora and Torvald, Nora and Krogstad, Nora and Mrs. Linde, and Mrs. Linde and Krogstad. In the long run, it was the simple and direct that did the job of making Strømgren’s “A Doll House,” so striking and moving. The intensity of the moment made the production so rewarding and would have sufficed if all Strømgren relied upon what his adaptation of Ibsen’s words.
Leonard C. Haas’s Torvald informs Strømgren’s production the most. This Torvald is not calm or pleasant as he lays down the law and speaks of how his personal life reflects on his new position as manager of the town’s bank. Haas goes beyond being self-important and afraid of the least gossip that might tarnish his respected name. He is a martinet who wants everything just so and is not disposed to listen to anyone who might shake his opinion, even justifiably.
Haas’s is a Torvald who mind is made up. He is also for whom perception is reality, so even if something appears to be less than perfect, he reacts to it negatively and takes steps to rid himself of any nuisance.
It is the extremity of Haas’s Torvald that allows Holum’s Nora to awake. She sees a man who would not do for her what she did for him, whether overtly or in secret. She sees a man who will put cosmetic propriety about a person he should care about most. Torvald, as interpreted by Haas and Strømgren, stands for rigid conformity, strict adherence to social mores he will not transgress. This should make Torvald seem like an honorable upholder of standards, or at worst a man with no imagination or compassion, but in Haas’s hands, it makes Torvald an ill-tempered prig.
Choreographed by Strømgen, Pearce Bunting tiptoes around the “Doll’s House” set as the family friend, Dr. Rank, who is a bit of a busybody, an older man in love with Nora, and a man on the verge of death.
Bunting’s motions and witty execution of them are almost from a comic dance version of “A Doll’s House.” Bunting does Strømgren’s bidding with such aplomb, everything he does rates attention, especially when the basically comic nature of his movements are tinged with the sadness and regret only a clown can muster.
Mary Lee Bednarek exudes Kristina’s practicality. Her final scene with Krogstad is special because Bednarek takes it beyond one of Ibsen’s neat plot devices by imbuing were words and gestures with sincerity that denotes Kristina as the most venerable person on stage, the one who can combine the human and sentimental with the real.
Suli Holum conquers early overdoing to show Nora in genuine turmoil. Her look of disappointment when Torvald does not rise to heroism on Nora’s behalf is heartbreaking while showing a woman who had come to a revelation that will affect the rest of her life.
Trey Lyford is an interesting Krogstad. He is too hard and angry for you to want to help, yet you understand the reason he might act spitefully or bitterly. In the end, you are happy Nils has Kristine to guide him. So, through his severe portrayal of Krogstad, Lyford makes a case for the character that allows for eventual sympathy.
Lyford is also quite lithe, leaping on and doing vaults over Strømgren’s set pieces with agile aplomb.
While “A Doll’s House” incorporates movement and choreography into a classic play, dance is a primary hallmark of Strømgren’s funny, bittersweet pieces, “There” and “The Border.”
Both piece begin with a simple plot structure that evolves into mayhem and personal relationships that turn physical. “There,” which begins like the quartet from “Waiting for Godot” and morphs into The Three Stooges, Curly and Shemp included, in entertaining and has the best single bit Strømgren creates in this Fringe. “The Border,” about two seemingly incompatible office mates, is hilarious.
Two of the actors in “There” are on stage when the audience enters and stand stock still for the 10 minutes between the time the Fringe Arts house opens and Strømgren’s play begins.
The four characters don’t know each other. They seem to have defected separately by stowing away on a freight steamer that is leaving their country for someplace else.
The men are wary with each other, literally dancing around one another to gauge if one is stronger or likely to dominate. One of the guys has a nasty temper , and he emerges as the one to avoid.
Even though avoidance is impossible. The men give the impression the hold in which they’re waiting or traveling is cramped. Cargo boxes are strewn about. Some of those boxes contain surprises.
Which brings me to the bit I like so much. The first two men, the ones who are on stage when the audience enters, become curious about their surroundings. Once a box opened to reveal things they can use, they want to know what might be in the other boxes.
The smallest crave waits until last. The men, now numbering three, open it and recoil in horror. They back off but conquer their fear and work to extract whatever is in that box. The work is strenuous. The crate’s contents is wedged in tightly, and no one, not even the strong, foul-tempered seems to be able to make it budge.
The men try all kinds of strategies, and they are entertaining. The real comes when they open the lid, turn the box upside down, and push en masse.
“Eureka!” From the box comes a fourth man, packed so carefully to get his 5’6″ frame into a 2′ x 4′ crate, he can’t unfold himself. Nor can his shipmates extricate him from the cramped position he’s in.
In typical vaudeville fashion, one of the men pulls on a leg to straighten it from the knee, and it snaps back into its contorted place. The same happens when an arm is straightened at the elbow.
The man seems doomed to be frozen in his folded condition for eternity. In the funniest bit, two men work to straighten his legs. They succeed, but the legs bounce back into the folded position only to come straight again in a solid kick that knocks both other men across the stage. All of Strømgren’s physical humor makes you smile, but the man falling from box in such a tight pose elicits guffaws. The attempts to straighten his folded limbs adds more humor and more laughter. Strømgen has filled his stage with the essence of clowning, sad sacks meaning well but fomenting further calamity as they work to understand the place they’re in, cope with each other and the discoveries eliciting from the crates, and wander into one physical mishap after another. This includes fighting, a group dance, and lots of ways bodies can entangle.
Ivar Sverrisson, Jan Ivar Lund, Kyrre Texnæs, and Mikkel Are Olsenlund are the marvelously lithe and witty actors.
Sverrisson also appears opposite Ida Holten Worsøe in “The Border,” an entangling tango or sort about disparate co-workers who move from not being able to stand each other to plotting marriage in some far outpost in Norway where their assignment takes place.
You get the impression Sverrisson and Worsøe represent people from two different countries, because neither understands the language the other uses, a nonsense language called Sovieta that Strømgren invents as he goes.
Hostility is open between the pair. The man is habit-bound. He doesn’t seem all that industrious, but he certainly spends enough time taking water bottles out of his desk cabinet, opening them with an oid-fashioned bottle cap opener, and discarding the empties in the cabinet. When he amasses enough empties, he braves the elements of the Norwegian outpost to turn them in, get the deposits, and buy new water.
The woman, who wants the man’s attention, but negatively at first, takes the opportunity afforded by the men leaving to go to the store to examine his desk and to abscond with the petty cash he used to pay for the water.
The two play a constant game of quietly annoying each and bedeviling the other’s existence.
The man tries several things to get away from the woman. He moves his desk, which let us see that the man has two white message boards on his side of a screen that separates the pair, while the woman has pictures of male porn, which remains visible to the audience for most of the show.
Following what looks like mutual hatred comes the dance of seduction. Both the man and the woman to this campaign of getting one of the office mates to notice the other, but the woman starts it.
Eventually, a radio brings the two together is a dance that is tenuous and evading but that builds into something intimate that will lead to the most intimate acts consenting adults can perform.
Throughout Sverrisson and Worsøe are keen at their mutual gain, and while “The Border” raises some logical and logistical questions, they go for naught because the piece, which ends with a romantic interlude before the couples learn their employers are separating them, is so darned engaging, you don’t care if it all makes sense.
Alas, both von Hove’s “After the Rehearsal” and “Passion,” and Strømgren’s works have completed their runs at the Fringe Festival. The good news these works are classic parts of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam and the Jo Strøgren Kompani’s repertoire. They could surface, perhaps at a subsequent Fringe Festival, at any time. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see them in A’dam or Tromsø. Norway, where the Toneelgroep and the Strøgren Kompani makes their permanent home.