August Strindberg (1849-1912), along with his contemporary nordic countryman, Henrik Ibsen, is often cited as a founder of modern theatre. No survey of theatre history would be complete without a chapter on Strindberg. Most theatre students will have seen and/or read at least one of his plays, most likely “Miss Julie“.
Nevertheless, except for that masterpiece of realism, Strindberg is not often produced nowadays. His language is old fashioned and his plays can be uncomfortably wordy.
But his genius was astounding. His novels (which preceded the plays) are considered classics. As a founder of realism, he is viewed as co-equal with Ibsen and Chekov. He also wrote expressionistic plays full of the supernatural, poetry and dreams. His work clearly anticipated the dream like experiments of Tennessee Williams as well as the absurdist creations of Samuel Becket and Edward Albee and even the weighty family dramas of Eugene O’Neill. As if all that weren’t enough, he was also an amateur painter (friends with both Edvard Munch and Paul Gaugin) and photographer whose work is still on display in museums and taken seriously by art historians.
It was late in his life that he opened his Intima Teatern (The Intimate Theatre) in Stockholm, for which he created The Chamber Plays.
Paul Walsh (Professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama) has completed new translations of the five Chamber Plays for Cutting Ball’s Strindberg Festival (marking the 100th anniversary of his death) and the current performances are the first time that these plays have ever been seen in repertory together in any language.
The five plays are certainly extraordinary, haunting, full of emotional resonance. “Storm” explores the emotional tempest that ensues when an old man, who abandoned his young wife years ago out of fear that he had become aged and repugnant, discovers that she has taken an upstairs apartment with a younger, abusive husband.
The fascinating “Burned House” explores the complex history of an old family and their longtime neighbors which is revealed when their house is burned to the ground. It includes elements of detective story, character story, family drama and philosophical reflection.
The centerpiece of the series is “The Ghost Sonata”. Here we find a true masterpiece that reveals Strindberg’s genius in full sail. A young Student is drawn into the home of a mysterious family that includes such peculiar characters as “The Mummy”, an elderly woman who thinks she is a parrot, “The Colonel” whose claim to greatness is suspect, a beautiful young girl who remains shut away in a hothouse of hyacinths, and an old, spider like financier who plays with all of these characters as if they were his personal marionettes.
In ‘The Pelican’, the tragedy of a horribly dysfunctional family is revealed. There is murder, jealousy, betrayal, a brutally unnatural mother and plenty of sex. Describing the piece in his program note, director Rob Melrose aptly references both “Hamlet” and “Electra”. It is unforgettable.
“The Black Glove”, last of the Chamber Plays presented, is different and more cheerful than the rest. A charming Christmas fantasy, it includes a Christmas Angel and a Gnome who playfully interfere in the lives of a group of apartment dwellers one fateful Christmas eve.
Taken together, Cutting Ball’s presentation of “The Chamber Plays” (which I saw in a marathon performance lasting seven hours plus lunch and dinner breaks), are a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical opportunity. Walsh’s translations are masterful, and the direction and performances are straightforward, easy to follow and never boring.
Although, overall, these productions are a bit over-respectful and have the feeling of museum pieces, anybody with an interest in theatrical history and a curiosity about Strindberg will be thrilled to see them. Each play includes at least a few moments of the finest theatrical magic, and well loved bay area actor James Carpenter is at his impressive best.
“The Chamber Plays” continue through this weekend. ‘Storm’ and ‘Burned House’ will be performed tonight (November 15) and ‘The Ghost Sonata’ will be performed tomorrow night (November 16th). The entire cycle will be given in marathon performances (strongly recommended for the ambitious) on Saturday (November 17th) and again on Sunday (November 18th). For further information click here.
“Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays In Rep” by August Strindberg, translated by Paul Walsh, produced by Cutting Ball Theater. Director: Bob Melrose. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Lighting Designer: York Kennedy. Costume Designer: Anna Oliver. Composer & Sound Designer; Cliff Caruthers. Props Master: Sarah Bingel.
Acting Company: James Carpenter, Paul Gerrior, Ponder Goddard, Anne Hallinan, Carl Holvick-Thomas,Caitlyn Louchard,Michael Moerman, Danielle O’Hare, Robert Parsons, Gwyneth Richards, Alex Shafer, David Sinaiko, Nick Trengove.
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