Directed by: Max Truax
At Oracle Theatre
Production of Strindberg’s Chamber Play a Visceral Experience that Lacks Substance.
Plays in which the focus is on the mood and emotion rather than the story and characters can be a difficult endeavor. The Ghost Sonata is by no means an easy play because the story is near impossible to follow, with only tid-bits becoming slightly understandable. The play itself was revolutionary because it was one of the first chamber plays, meant to be done in a small space with few actors and few sets, but it comes across as a confusing meditation on class, society, and human nature. I think a lot of the power in the play lies in the symbolism and parallels to the time/era Strindberg lived in, but that does not translate to modern day. At least, it does not translate in this production. Although there are some wonderful visual moments in the show, the language gets lost and the mood feels stagnant.
The story, as far as I could make out, involves an old man (Rich Logan) who invites a young, virtuous man (Frederico Rodriguez) into his home. What the young man does not realize is that the old man weaves a web of deceit and manipulation within the home to control the destinies of those around him. These involve his man servants Johansson (Justin Warren) and Bengstsson (John Arthur Lewis) and a worn down old woman known as “the mummy” (Ann Sonneville) who lives in a closet. It is unclear whether these characters are actually alive, or the remnants of these people trapped in purgatory continuing the awful deeds they did in life. The story is really not that important to this piece because I believe the script is trying to be reflective of society in a visceral manner, rather than being an attempt at realism. I find it interesting that Strindberg gravitated towards this style of play in his later years considering the naturalistic style of his most famous play, Miss Julie. The play sets the audience into a trance, I’m not sure if this is purposeful or not, because there is the constant playing of stringed instruments. The same, if not nearly identical, music is played throughout the production which adds to the feeling that mood stays constant throughout.
To describe the acting in this production would be fruitless because the actors are working in such a distinct and specific style that is far from naturalistic. The heightened nature of the piece is something that the director helped them with, most likely, and orchestrated. It relies on specific movement, tone, and pace (kind of like a Beckett play) to be successful as an engaging piece of theatre. Director Max Truax has done some wonderful things with the staging and has done his best to corral the difficult language of this play. The scene where the Colonel ( Sean Ewert) trades his clothes with Johansson and becomes the servant instead was wonderful, especially since Mr. Ewert and Mr. Warren were dressed identically. Also, the old man being present from the moment the audience walks in sets an immediate tone for the piece. The set transition to the “banquet hall” is also wonderful because the perspective created by Mr. Truax and Brieanne Hauger was the first time I felt like I was truly in a haunted house. However, these visual gems can not overcome the murkiness of the experience. I understand that the language is heightened and not naturalistic, but it became impossible to even follow the mood because of the manner in which all of the lines were spoken (in a purposefully ghost-like manner.). If the language was not said in this meaningfully presentational manner I think the show would have been more successful. The setting, story, and language of the piece already create an eerie environment, but the way the lines were spoken took it one step over the top for me. This is not to say that the actors do a bad job because there is commitment to the style all the way through the show, it just doesn’t always work.
I have never been a huge fan of plays in this style, with little story and a lot of mood. Often these plays are successful based on how the language is handled. Every line has to be so exact and precise otherwise it comes across like a series of words being said without purpose or meaning. Unfortunately, this was the case with this production. If you are a fan of the macabre or plays with less story and more atmosphere, this would be a good play for you. I purposefully waited twenty-four hours after this performance to begin writing this review because I felt I needed the time to digest this play and see how I felt later. Often with these plays you will find your opinions have changed; in this instance they did not. While I applaud the artists at Oracle for tackling this beast of a play and coming up with some wonderful visual moments, it is not enough to engage the audience for a full ninety minutes.
At Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway Ave. Suggested Donation $10-20, www.oracletheatre.org. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 7:00 PM. Running time is approximately 90 Minutes with no intermission.