In the opening moments of Theater for a New Audience’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Metellus Cimber (Ted Deasy), one of the conspirators against Caesar, confronts a “mechanical,” or ordinary citizen, who is out on the street loudly celebrating the festival of Lupercal. Metellus ends up putting a chokehold on the man and then tossing him to the ground. The violent energy doesn’t let up for the next two hours and 40 minutes of a production that, at moments, is clear and invigorating, but at others sacrifices subtlety for movement and spectacle.
Measure for Measure (1604) has long been considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Partly it’s because of corruptions in the printing, but also, as a purported “comedy,” it’s never fully satisfying. In the right director’s hands, though, it can be deeply intriguing and memorable.
Samuel Beckett’s ironically titled Happy Days echoes the same vein of his jaundiced view of mankind’s fate as the line from Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Happy Days concerns Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist in a huge sand dune in Act I, and up to her neck in Act II. It’s a deft physical characterization of dying: the earth reclaims each of us from the moment of birth, and slowly we return to it.
Thornton Wilder is best remembered as the author of Our Town and The Matchmaker, the basis for the musical Hello, Dolly! But his third great play, The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by Elia Kazan in 1943, won the Pulitzer Prize, yet the tragicomedy is more spoken about than seen, perhaps because its demands are formidable. Wilder, a great experimentalist, uses every trick in the book to chart the survival of mankind, in the persons of the Antrobus family of Excelsior, N.J., through the Ice Age, the Flood, untold wars and starving refugees.
The juxtaposition of two masterpieces by two giants of modern theater on opposite sides of the ever more relevant and explosive issue of gender is a New York theatrical event. Theater for a New Audience has paired Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with the lesser-known The Father, by August Strindberg, a play written partially in response to the Ibsen play.
Director Arin Arbus and her creative team brilliantly use the same actors in similar roles in both plays and configure the theater at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in traverse with the audience on two sides of a fairly narrow but long stage. A Doll’s House, first produced in 1887, follows the 1937 Thornton Wilder adaptation. The Father, written in 1887, boasts a newly commissioned translation of from writer and director David Greig.
Both plays tell the story of a marriage that falls apart when a woman takes action on behalf of a husband or child in a world in which the society upholds male prerogatives. The law denies both women scope of action on critical matters in their lives. In The Father, it would deprive Laura (Maggie Lacey), the wife of Captain Adolf, the title character, of any say in the future of her child. In A Doll’s House, it turns Nora’s saving of her husband Thorwald’s life into a criminal act. What will Laura do when the Captain (John Douglas Thompson), her husband, announces his irrevocable decision to send their daughter away to school to become a teacher when she wants Bertha (Kimber Monroe) to remain home and study art? What will happen to Nora when her forgery of a promissory note on a loan is revealed to him just as, inconveniently, he is about to start a new job as the head of a bank?
In both plays the man is the provider, and the husband complains about his wife’s spending his hard-earned money (no concept of an economic partnership here!). Both women must connive to make their marriages work and get what they want, be it the nibble of a macaroon or the destiny of a child. In both, wives get in the way of their husbands’ careers, Laura in misdirecting her husband’s scientific letters detailing hard-won discoveries, and Nora in forging her father’s signature and potentially placing her husband in a compromised situation at his bank. Is it coincidence that the dramatic turning point of each play depends on an act of male violence? In The Father, Captain Adolf throws a lamp at his wife and the resulting fire is a tour de force of staging by Arbus with Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design. Matters for the Captain devolve from there. In A Doll’s House, the violence is verbal. Thorwald’s berating of Nora when he feels his career and social standing are threatened fires Nora’s decision to leave the confinement of her “doll’s house.” The overlap of the two plays could hardly be more striking.
But that overlap is indeed the point, and it throws the different human, gender, and theatrical visions of the plays into far sharper relief. A Doll’s House is, of course, not just the dramatic rendering and canny analysis of the woman’s situation in the late 19th century; it is a manifesto that speaks boldly even today. When Nora’s husband, Thorwald, defends himself to his wife, saying, “No man sacrifices his honor even for the woman he loves,” and Nora responds, “Millions of women have done it,” the audience at the Polonsky erupted in applause. With humiliating clarity, Nora comes to understand how living in homes run by men has stunted her growth as a human being. “I’ve been living like a beggar, by performing tricks for you!” she tells Thorwald. “You and my father are responsible. It’s your fault my life has been wasted.” Maggie Lacey is commendable in both wife roles, and does especially well with the lighter shades of Nora’s passionate character.
In The Father, the Captain’s human growth has been stunted too, and in a manner parallel to Nora’s, since it is his profound and early attachments to women, plumbed to extraordinary depths in the play and in the harrowing and magnificent performance by Thompson, that undermine and doom him. Thompson’s performances as the husbands are powerful, but the Strindberg provides him with a role of rare emotional range in which he, along with the audience watching him, absolutely revels. The Father is a cri de coeur on behalf of husbands and breadwinners everywhere and the sacrifices that come with that role. At the heart of this painful play is not a heroic vision of manhood but rather a disturbing vision of male weakness. It is out of weakness that the Captain reaches to the law and social norms of male prerogative to counter the will of his determined wife.
At the same time, staging the plays in repertory works to Strindberg’s advantage. The tight construction of The Father, in which the suspicions his wife plants about whether he is Bertha’s father or not drive the Captain to insanity, makes the Ibsen work feel, at moments, contrived, as when Nora’s friend and foil, Mrs. Linden, makes the shocking decision to allow Thorwald to find the damning letter that will reveal Nora’s forgery. The psychological contradictions and depths of Strindberg’s portrayal of the Captain makes Ibsen’s portrayal of Nora's final resolve to leave her husband and two children appear less powerfully motivated by comparison.
At the end of A Doll’s House, there is hope beyond the confines of the performance itself. Nora, who was courageous enough to undertake an extraordinary scheme to save a husband’s life, will surely succeed now that she has made the decision to save her own life. And in the aftermath of battle, there is the possibility of a new woman and new man that will emerge from this process. The same is not true for the more despairing vision of Strindberg, in which the male is fundamentally powerless, and the entire family a rubble of destruction. Tellingly, it is the Captain’s own nanny, Margaret, beautifully played with unexampled tenderness by Laurie Kennedy, who tricks him into the actual straitjacket to which his madness has led him. For the noble Captain, there is no exit. Strindberg’s vision is as dark as Ibsen’s is radical.
Arbus and her marvelous casts invite us to place these plays beside each other and, in so doing, come away with a new understanding, not only of these works, not only of these playwrights, but of ourselves. Can great theater do more?
Theater for a New Audience presents August Strindberg's The Father and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in repertory at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place) in Brooklyn through June 12. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.tfana.org.
It’s an axiom of theater that a writer shouldn’t direct his own work. Whether, if Richard Maxwell had heeded that advice, Isolde would seem more than a taxing exercise in bewilderment is an open question.
The play’s titular heroine is a woman struggling with neurosis. Her wealthy protector, Patrick (Jim Fletcher)—“she’s kind of a daughter and a wife a little bit to me”—is footing the bill for her to have a dream house built, and not just a dream house, but a perfect house. The architect she has chosen is named Massimo, but it’s unclear that Massimo (Gary Wilmes) has a talent for anything but gooey, pretentious psychobabble, although he has supposedly won awards. As it happens, Patrick has a construction company and knows the business. He challenges Massimo to put his ideas on paper, show him some schematics, but Massimo resists. Instead, Massimo begins an affair with the troubled Isolde (Tory Vazquez, who is married to Maxwell).
This mundane set-up turns out to strain credibility, and it gets scant help from the writing or the direction. Massimo expounds on “beauty that can be found in harmony” but sounds like a charlatan. He notes that “each of my projects is the start of a movement which will only be completed when it relates to the environment. The landscape is beauty. I read it like a book, I experience it and I protect it.” Patrick and Isolde come off as equally implausible. Describing Massimo, Patrick says he’s “jejune,” and notes “he left his glove on to shake my hand.” Isolde responds, “I know you hate that.” Really? How often does one shake hands with someone who’s gloved? It would have to be pretty often to build up antipathy toward the practice. And it doesn’t help that Maxwell directs his actors to deliver their lines woodenly, often just standing to face the audience. The result is that the dialogue, with emotion tamped down, frequently seems to be mere recitation.
Whether this is a way of indicating the action is from Isolde’s memory is unclear. She is a renowned actress, lately struggling to remember her lines, yet is stricken with ennui. “How long have I been doing the same thing?” she asks. “Every new project is the old project, then do it again…how many times? Get on a plane, go through a tunnel, go over a bridge.” Her name, of course, evokes the legendary Cornish love triangle of Tristan, Isolde, and King Mark, and that seems to be the role she's struggling with.
“I noticed myself and my predicament echoing through the epochs,” says Isolde’s character in the play being rehearsed, hinting at a universality in this love triangle. In any case, the legend is sidelined until late in the show, when it is explicitly invoked in a dumb show, for which Isolde appears in a gown of burgundy velvet and the men wear medieval garb and wield large swords. (Costumes are by Romy Springsguth.) Here Sascha van Riel’s bland lighting suddenly becomes saturated in garish color, but the sequence and what follows generate even more confusion.
Maxwell’s staging is also baffling. On Sascha van Riel’s set of a raised platform, some modernist chairs, and a couple walls broken by a dado rail that suggest rooms wallpapered in butcher paper, characters seem to appear from nowhere. “Here he comes,” says Isolde, and Massimo arrives. Any sense of real life, in which someone rings or knocks, someone goes to answer it, someone escorts a guest out rather than lets him wander alone through the home, is absent. The front door is apparently wide open. The scenes play as snapshots, but what’s in those snapshots doesn’t ring true.
There are some interesting passages, notably one about the refrigeration techniques of ancient Sumerians, but they are tangential, though Maxwell does prove adept at finding comedy in odd moments, thanks mostly to a fourth character, Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes), who is also in construction and a friend of Patrick’s.
Ultimately, any message the play has is undermined by the determined obscurity and the affectless deliveries. Whether isolated images and passages will stick in one’s memory is too soon to know. But the likelihood is slim.
Richard Maxwell's Isolde plays through Sept. 27 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place between Lafayette Ave. and Fulton St.) in Brooklyn. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by calling 866-811-4111 or visiting www.tfana.org.