Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Ghosts"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Henrik Ibsen
directed by Dan Cozzens

Regina Engstrand … Julia Morton
Jakob Engstrand … Jeremy Funke
Pastor Manders … Gustavo Turner
Helen Alving … Helen McCreery
Oswald Alving … James LeSage

Ghosts … Daire Gaj; Sarah Schacter; Benjamin Toff

Henrik Ibsen’s GHOSTS is a challenge, nowadays: syphilis as a topic doesn’t raise the kind of eyebrows it did in the late 1880’s and Mrs. Alving’s plight now creaks with melodrama --- she has sacrificed her happiness by keeping up appearances in a loveless marriage, even in widowhood, only to have her grown son Oswald claimed by the disease that his late father has passed on to him (wouldn’t Mrs. Alving have been infected, herself?). Mr. Ibsen’s attacks on marriage and church remain timely but with its shock value diluted how should GHOSTS be mounted, today?

GHOSTS is, again, a melodrama and should be played with enough passion to offset the bleakness of its theme and locale (a rain-drenched fjord in Norway); it is a psychological mystery where the past slowly devours the present; it is a minor tour-de-force for a character actress; it is a mood piece that requires an atmosphere so palpable that when Mrs. Alving claims to see ghosts the audience should also sense their presence. For the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre, Dan Cozzens has gently trimmed GHOSTS which now plays without an intermission and sets it in a period modern enough for accessibility yet remote enough so no anachronisms protrude; for atmosphere, Mr. Cozzens adds ghosts of Mrs. Alving’s husband, the servant he seduced and Oswald as a child to personify the past and act as a mute Chorus to the revelations. Some may find these ghosts a visual-aid to all the talk-talk-talk while others may find them distracting (the husband-ghost, in particular, has appalling table manners and stomps about like a poltergeist). Perhaps the ghosts would be more effective if they were used sparingly, mimed their actions rather than handling actual props and appeared and disappeared through a passage that no one else uses --- also, are they independent ghosts or are they Mrs. Alving’s tortured projections?

Happily, Mr. Cozzens has staged the rest of GHOSTS conservatively but with an imaginative twist, favoring three tableaus played out directly on the floor and a harrowing mother-son tête-à-tête straddled on chairs at right angles, and he has worked some wonders with his student cast. Not surprisingly, James LaSage and Julia Morton come off best as Oswald and Regina, the servant he loves, though Mr. LaSage could have been better orchestrated in his growing hysteria; Ms. Morton has an innate drollness about her that could lead to a marvelous Hedda Gabler, in time. Helen McCreery’s unlined youth makes her Mrs. Alving a chilly younger sister to Oswald; to her credit, there is nothing girlish about Ms. McCreery’s performance and twice she suddenly catches fire: for a fleeting moment Ms. McCreery puts her hand to her throat as an older woman would instinctively do and when she bends over Oswald in concern her petite presence turns matronly --- an amazing transformation. Gustavo Turner gets easy laughs for his silly-ass Pastor Manders, reminiscent of absent-minded professors, and Jeremy Funke’s burlesque Jakob Engstrand punches up the evening whenever he bounds upon the scene.

Timothy James Greenway has designed a good, simple setting with the all-important front window slightly askew in the A.R.T. manner; Rosa Rio’s organ music being played between scenes threatens to reduce everything to 1930s radio soap (ANNOUNCER: We now return to GHOSTS where Oswald asks his mother… / OSWALD: Mom, is the woman I love really my sister?).

I recently bemoaned how SHOW BOAT has been bowdlerized over the years; I now switch stances and hope to someday see GHOSTS with the final few minutes shorn so that it ends with Mrs. Alving and Oswald staring bleakly into the dawn, both knowing that someday he will mentally decompose and that she has promised to perform a mercy killing --- that way, Mr. Ibsen’s melodrama would become a true tragedy: the horror would lie in waiting for the final shoe to drop. As written, what a day Mrs. Alving has had!

"Ghosts" (5-20 August)
Loeb Experimental Theatre, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide