Monday, August 31, 2015

Ibsen and Barrie Rarities at the Shaw Festival

Moya O'Connell and Ric Reid in The Lady from the Sea, at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

The Lady from the Sea is an infrequently performed late Ibsen, one of those realist plays of his that teeters on the edge of symbolism, like The Wild Duck. (He wrote it in 1888, between Rosmersholm and Hedda Gabler.) The character who has earned the title moniker among locals in a Norwegian seacoast town is Ellida Wangel. She is married to a devoted doctor but has grown increasingly distant from him and hasn’t quite taken on the burden of stepmother to his two daughters, Bolette and Hilde. He assumes that the problem is her inability to get over the death of their own child (she hasn’t slept with him since), but it’s more complicated. Ellida is haunted by a lost love, an American sailor to whom she was engaged but who ran away to escape imprisonment for the murder of a ship’s captain. The connection she feels to the unnamed American is powerful, primal and also terrifying, because she senses that he is drawing her into the sea itself, where they threw their wedding rings when they plighted their troth. In the course of the play the stranger returns and calls on Ellida to fulfill her promise to him, refusing to recognize her as a woman married to another man.

The Lady from the Sea is a kind of ghost story; despite its realist psychology always the source of the greatness of Ibsen’s work it belongs as much to the world of the German Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich (who died half a century before Ibsen wrote it). The Shaw Festival has produced it this season in the Court House Theatre, where I saw their superlative production of Rosmersholm about a decade ago, and it’s the perfect space for these Ibsens: the intimacy helps to break down the distance between the plays and the audience, which can find his mannered language and his dramatic strategies problematic. Of the great modernist playwrights of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ibsen is the oddest, because he’s so deeply immersed in the Victorian conventions that he’s engaged in satirizing and undermining, and because the form he employs to query the assumptions of his age is the potboiler melodrama, though he twists its conventions. And the supernatural undercurrents of plays like this one and The Wild Duck and Little Eyolf make them really quite weird. The director, Meg Roe, uses stylized staging, especially during the scene transitions, and Camellia Koo’s set is sparely beautiful – a sculpted rock in front of a cyclorama lit by Kevin Lamotte to suggest indistinct fusions of color somewhat like late Turner canvases. The opening image, which he has lit superbly, is of Ellida (Moya O’Connell) lying naked on the rock like a beached sea sprite (her husband refers to her later as a mermaid), looking profoundly unsettled, disenfranchised.

Kyle Blair and Darcy Gerhart in The Lady from the Sea.
The Shaw has chosen a new, compact version of the play by Erin Shields that runs ninety minutes without intermission, and the paring down of the text works well, especially since this isn’t an Ibsen that educated audiences are likely to know anyway (like Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House). The production is a noble effort to mount an exceedingly difficult work, and much of it comes off. A number of the actors give intelligent, creditable performances: Jacqueline Thair as Bolette; Andrew Bunker as Professor Arnholm, who was once a suitor of Ellida’s and who now directs his romantic yearnings toward Bolette; Neil Barclay as the painter and one-time thespian Ballested; and Mark Uhre as the American, a role I would never have thought to cast him in that he plays completely convincingly. As the callow young sculptor Hans Lyngstrand, Kyle Blair provides a much-needed comic counterpoint to the dark proceedings; Roe errs, perhaps, too much on the side of eliciting the attention of her contemporary audience by puncturing Lyngstrand’s sexist attitudes (as well as his youthful narcissism), but on the other hand Ibsen did create some ridiculous figures he seemed to want to burlesque (like Pastor Manders in Ghosts), and Lyngstrand appears to be in that number. Ric Reid gives a reliably grounded performance as Dr. Wangel, though he’s such a fine actor that I wish he’d delved more. The only one of the supporting cast who seems wrong – forced – is Darcy Gerhart as Hilde, the younger of Dr. Wangel’s daughters, whose resentment of her stepmother masks a fervent wish to be loved by her like a real daughter.

The major problem with the show is Moya O’Connell, who never surrenders herself to the role; you’re always conscious of her acting. I think she’s doing her best; I can’t think of an actress in the Shaw company over the dozen seasons I’ve been attending who would be right for it, and I don’t mean that as a denigration of the company. You need someone like the young Vanessa Redgrave (who played Ellida famously on Broadway in the early eighties) or the young Judy Davis or the young Blythe Danner. O’Connell is gorgeous but she lacks the transcendent quality of those women – the magic. And unfortunately, The Lady from the Sea can’t be transported to the realm Ibsen intends it to inhabit without that magic. The Shaw production remains earthbound, though it represents an admirable effort to wrestle with a strange and affecting play that has been all but forgotten.

Kate Besworth in The Twelve-Pound Look, at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

The Shaw’s lunchtime one-act this season is J.M. Barrie’s 1910 The Twelve-Pound Look, a lively burlesque of staunch Edwardian attitudes in the age of suffragettes and women doing clerical work as well as other previously unimagined jobs. Patrick Galligan, edging his confident high-comic style into parody, plays Harry Sims, who is about to be knighted. He’s hired a woman to type up a form letter extending his thanks to all his well-wishers, but to his shock and discomfort she turns out to be his former wife Kate (Moya O’Connell), who deserted him, according to the letter she left him, for another man. That story turns out to be a fabrication to put him off the scent; the truth is that she got so fed up with being married to a domestic tyrant that she left him to establish an independent life once she had put aside a small nest egg – twelve pounds – to purchase a typewriter and launch a career. Kate Besworth plays the soon-to-be Lady Sims, whom Kate immediately identifies as wilted and dispirited and likely to develop “the twelve-pound look.” The play is only a doodle but it’s witty, and Lezlie Wade’s production is quite entertaining. (It’s also elegant, thanks to the efforts of designer William Schmuck.) And there’s a bonus: as a curtain raiser (for a play that is itself a curtain raiser), Wade has interpolated a song from the Victor Herbert-Henry Blossom operetta Eileen called “If Eve Had Left the Apple on the Bough,” and it’s performed by the Sims domestics (Neil Barclay, as the comically unflappable butler Tombes, and Harveen Sandhu).

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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