Tis the Season to Be Melancholy

13. November, 2012 Theater No comments

The Cutting Ball Theater is marking the centennial of August Strindberg’s death in a very big way, performing all five of the seminal Swedish playwright’s  Chamber Plays together in repertory for the first time in any language. They’re all in new translations by Paul Walsh, three of them commissioned by Cutting Ball, and all newly published as a book by Exit Press. The plays are split into three separate bills that have been rolled out gradually since October 12, allowing one double bill to get on its feet before opening the next, but last weekend and this coming, final weekend all five plays are performed in all-day marathons from noon to close to midnight.

Carl Holvick-Thomas and Danielle O’Hare in The Pelican. Photo by Laura Mason.

For whatever reason, Cutting Ball didn’t open the plays in the order that they were written and numbered by Strindberg. First the company unveiled Opus 3, The Ghost Sonata, which I reviewed for the Marin Independent Journal a few weeks ago, then Op. 4 and 5, The Pelican and The Black Glove, and finally the first two, Storm and Burned House. The marathons present all the plays in the proper order, but it hardly matters what order you see them in because they don’t have any plot connections or characters in common, just a lot of the same character types, themes, and motifs.

I caught the first marathon on Saturday, aware of being part of the first audience to see all the plays together, something not even the author had a chance to do, and a videographer was there to record all the performances for posterity as part of an NEA-sponsored project. (They’ll be viewable on Cutting Ball’s Strindberg website in perpetuity for the enjoyment and edification of those who couldn’t be there.) The company purchased comfortable new chairs for the occasion rather than asking the audience to squirm all day in the old ones.

I didn’t really count myself among the hardy souls putting in a full day of it, however, because I’d already seen The Ghost Sonata when it opened, and as much as I enjoyed it I didn’t really need to see it again. Curiously enough, in each of the other bills I found the first play much stronger than the second.

Contrary to what the modern viewer might associate with “chamber plays,” these intimate works are seldom confined to a single location and none of them have small casts. Artistic director Rob Melrose’s dreamy stagings do all share the same cast in various permutations, however, which both adds a level of richness to the experience of seeing them all together and really drives home the similarities between them. It also gives the actors a heck of a workout, but they hold up admirably despite a stumbled-upon line here and there. Michael Locher’s superb set evokes an impressive variety of locations through moving and rotating black booths against the dark gray background of a city street scene.

In Storm, James Carpenter gives a marvelous performance as an old Gentleman who left his young wife and child five years ago, because he didn’t want his age to be a burden. Even-tempered and accepting, he now lives with his memories with what he describes as perfect equanimity, but when the past comes back to haunt him the cracks in his contentment begin to show. He prefers to spend his days playing chess and waxing philosophical, with pithy observations such as, “time passes quickly once it’s past, but while it’s passing it drags on.”

Robert Parsons keeps harping on the past as the Gentleman’s brother, the Consul, gently reminding his brother that his ex-wife tried to destroy his reputation when he left her, which the Gentleman refuses to dwell upon because he didn’t pay it any attention. The only thing that seems to bother him is the racket from upstairs. The Consul is kind and sympathetic, trying to smooth things over with the intense loyalty of someone who’s done wrong and wishes to atone.

David Sinaiko is sweetly funny as their cheery neighbor, the confectioner Mr. Starck, who exchanges pleasantries and gossip with them outside the building where they all live. Much of their conversation centers on speculation about the couple who have recently moved in upstairs, and whom none of them have seen. The music, loud noises, and drawn red curtains lead them to suspect there’s something unmannerly going on up there—wild parties, maybe a gambling den. Like the Gentleman, Mr. Starck has troubles and worries but prefers the peace and quiet of not talking about them.

Ponder Goddard is a warm presence as the old gentleman’s housemaid, a quiet, contended beauty whom he’d never consider as a romantic prospect, though there are hints that she may feel something stronger.

Of course the ex-wife has to show up, and Danielle O’Hare rolls in like a tempest, all drama and resentment and jealousy and regret, in a wine-red dress that contrasts greatly with the others’ subdued palette. (The elegant period costumes are by Anna Oliver.) She’s a force to be reckoned with, and she amply shows why the Gentleman would have fallen in love with her and why he’d desperately want to avoid being drawn into her undertow again. In the face of the prevailing stoicism of the house, her tendency to shoot herself in the foot with her own temper is refreshing.

There are a great many walk-on characters: Starck’s furtive daughter (Caitlyn Louchard), the ex-wife’s shifty new husband (Carl Holvick-Thomas) and a variety of delivery people and other working folks who pass through to deliver mail or light streetlamps (Michael Moerman, Paul Gerrior, Alex Shafer, Nick Trengove). Most of these characters could easily be double cast with other roles, but Melrose has a lot of actors on hand.

Three of the plays involve burned-down houses, but as the title implies, the charred debris is central to Burned House. An old family home has burned down, revealing all the buried secrets in the walls, and the townsfolk are all chattering about who was responsible. A gruff detective (Moerman) questions the local craftsmen about the incident.

Into the midst of this enters a stranger who’s actually the long-absent brother of the house’s owner, played by Carpenter with a sort of jolly, open-mouthed wonder at seeing his boyhood home again. One thing that bothers him not at all is the distress of those around him. This man, Arvid, has no fellow-feeling for anyone, simply smiling in bitter amusement at the perfidy of mankind and taking pleasure in making others face up to their iniquity. He’s very matter-of-factly a sociopath, though still less sinister than the old man Carpenter plays in The Ghost Sonata.

As Rudolf the dyer, Parsons looks downright terrified to see the brother he thought was dead, who’s just been making his fortune in America for thirty years. Parsons and Carpenter play brothers again, but this time they’re much more antagonistic, in part because they’re both horrible people in very different ways. But then, the same could be said of all of humanity—and indeed it is said, again and again.

The large ensemble has more to do in this one than in some of the others, simply because there are so many characters gossiping about the fire or being verbally destroyed by Arvid. O’Hare is the disillusioned wife of the dyer (Arvid’s brother), and Holvick-Thomas is the evasive student who may be her lover. There’s Gerrior as a plain-spoken mason, Gwyneth Richards as his savvy wife, Anne Hallinan as a former servant of the family, Sinaiko as a constantly kvetching gardener and a glowering stonecutter, Shafer as a well-dressed hearse driver, Goddard as a smirking witness, and Louchard and Trengrove as young lovers getting set for a lifetime of disappointment.

Each of the plays is greatly repetitive, covering the same ground over and over, but in Burned House more than most it becomes tedious. Every conversation is about how every single person, onstage or off, is a crook and a liar and generally horrible, for such is humanity. “Isn’t it terrible to be alive?” the stonecutter asks Arvid. “Yes,” he replies. “Beyond all description, terrible.” The constant ominous drone that sound designer Cliff Caruthers uses to underscore this play only amplifies the monotony. If ever there were a play worthy of the caricature of the misanthrope author portrayed in the web cartoon Strindberg and Helium, this is it.

Carpenter is absent for The Pelican, though his presence is felt in the shadow of the old husband and father who has recently died. The play is a fascinating portrait of his scheming widow, Elise, who’s accused of starving her family, saving all the cream and choice meat for herself and serving them scraps—or taking extravagant vacations but refusing to let them burn firewood because money is tight. (There are several parallels to The Ghost Sonata, in which the cook is accused of starving the family the same way.)

In an elegant red dress, O’Hare is a perfect monster as Elise, though a compellingly charismatic one. She’s tremendously vain, sparing nary a thought for how she eclipses her daughter, and she presents herself as a martyr who’s sacrificed everything for her brood. She’s haughty, dismissive, and locked in deep denial, as if to really look at herself would destroy her. And most of all, she’s nearly desperate to find the money that she’s sure her husband must have been hiding from her. Surely she hasn’t spent it all.

Trengrove is bitterly resentful and passive-aggressive as her sickly son, who blames her entirely for his poor health and restless mind, and Louchard is dazed and jumpy as her newlywed daughter, Gerda. Holvick-Thomas plays her callous heel of a son-in-law with cruel relish—he’s another matter-of-fact sociopath—and the sexual tension between him and Elise is as palpable as it is disturbing.

Goddard, Hallinan, and Sinaiko are a constant presence as three pallid poltergeists dressed as household staff, who sit and watch the proceedings raptly, occasionally getting up to bang walls, slam doors, strew papers around, and set the rocking chair in motion. Richards has a short scene as a living servant who tells her mistress off.

As in most of the plays, there’s a lot of harping, as everyone gets a chance to tell the mother how dreadful she is. What keeps the repetition from becoming a drag is what a fascinating study of pathology Elise is, as well as the feeling of constant tension that Melrose’s staging elicits.

The Black Glove is, curiously, a Christmas story, complete with a Christmas elf and an angel. But never fear, it’s still a remarkably bleak one. O’Hare plays the young wife of an unseen gentleman; she’s haughty and unforgiving with the servants, giving no one a Christmas bonus and accusing the most virtuous housemaid of stealing a ring that she lost. So the Christmas Angel conspires to teach her a lesson in holiday gratitude by having the Yule-Tomte (a sort of gnome of Scandinavian folklore that got shoehorned into the holiday tradition) steal the newborn baby that’s the apple of her eye. You know, drive her crazy with worry and grief, and then give it back as a Christmas miracle.

Sinaiko has a lot of practice being a Christmas elf from performing The Santaland Diaries every year. In a somewhat ridiculous outfit with a giant beard, his Yule-Tomte is impish in a borderline malicious way, shuffling people’s important papers and putting their keys in the wrong places, but he also watches over them with a kind of wild-eyed tenderness. Goddard is in more straightforward fairy mode as the angel.

When Carpenter enters in his winter coat he looks like Scrooge, a character he plays every December at American Conservatory Theater, but the Conservator he plays here couldn’t be more different from that old miser. He’s a kindly old man who lives upstairs, doing a bit of taxidermy and trying to unlock the philosophical mysteries of the universe. He also spends a time chatting with the regular folks the Young Wife doesn’t care to know—the gentle caretaker of the building (Parsons), the earnest and unjustly accused maid (Louchard) and the other maid (Hallinan) who comes to report whenever the mistress is on the warpath.

Although written a couple of years later than the others (in 1909 rather than 1907), The Black Glove definitely contains echoes of the rest that clearly earn it its place among the Chamber Plays. The Young Wife shares many characteristics with other characters O’Hare plays over the course of the series—the haughtiness, the miserliness, the vanity—and though Carpenter is a kind old man here rather than a cruel one, he’s also reached the end of his life and preparing for death, much as the author himself was at the time.

There’s a strange tension between the fantastical holiday elements and the accustomed bleakness that’s also present in this piece, and they never quite come together in a satisfying way. The Yule-Tomte, for instance, liberates the old philosopher by convincing him that he’s wasted his life on useless nonsense. Yay? Caruthers accentuates the gloom with spooky music, and York Kennedy’s lighting almost becomes a character in the piece as the electricity goes on the blink.

There are a whole lot of monologues in this piece—the Tomte waxing poetical about the Christmas scene, the wife recounting her woes, the old man rambling on about the riddles of the cosmos—and it all gets to be very wearying. There are many classic Christmas stories that are surprisingly grim when you take a good look at them, from A Christmas Carol to It’s a Wonderful Life, but the gift that these spirits bring with their cruel pranks seems a remarkably hollow one after all the build-up. But then there was seldom a more unlikely literary figure to play Santa Claus than Strindberg.

Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Rep
Through November 18
Cutting Ball Theater
Exit on Taylor
277 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA

Storm and Burned House: Show #108 of 2012, attended November 10.

The Pelican and The Black Glove: Show #109 of 2012, attended November 10.

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