Cutting Ball's Ghost Sonata stalks the stage as the opening gambit of its Strindberg Cycle
THEATER With the exception of an occasional Miss Julie, the plays of August Strindberg (and there are more than 60 of them) rarely find productions anymore. Yet the iconoclastic and prolific Swedish writer's influence on modern drama — including such American playwrights as Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee — is considered a given. This year marks 100 years since Strindberg's death, and San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater has gone all out in satisfying a yen for a centennial embrace of this monumental (and definitely temperamental) artist who helped define the terms and concerns of modernism.
Capping a year of readings and discussions of the work and the man, Cutting Ball last week began an audacious program of five late "chamber plays," to run in repertory through November 18. The project includes five new translations by Yale professor (and former American Conservatory Theater dramaturg) Paul Walsh, and the simultaneous publication of all five in a single volume by Exit Press.
Last week, The Ghost Sonata (1908) began stalking the stage of the Exit on Taylor as the opening gambit in Cutting Ball's Strindberg Cycle. Its original premiere took place on a stage not too unlike this one, as artistic director Rob Melrose explains in a program note, being written (along with the other plays in the Cycle: Storm, Burned House, The Pelican, and The Black Glove) especially for the opening of Strindberg's new Intimate Theater in Stockholm. This makes the chamber plays an especially apt choice for Cutting Ball's stage. A pioneer of the chamber play form, Strindberg meant to foster an immersive experience for his audience with these deeply strange, poetical, dreamlike little plays he modeled on chamber music. The emphasis was thus on coziness, small casts in small houses, without the need for elaborate mise-en-scène. Moreover, a level of invention would dominate in these plays in which form would follow theme, rather than the other way around.
The Ghost Sonata is perhaps the best-known example among the playwright's chamber works. It concerns a heroic and ambitious young poet named Arkenholz (Carl Holvick-Thomas) who, after saving some people from a burning building, finds himself seduced into the good graces of a fancy upper-class household of an aristo Colonel (Robert Parsons) by the machinations of a mysterious wheelchair-bound old man, Director Hummel (the formidable James Carpenter).
Hummel's real motives become clearer as the play progresses through three short acts (the entire play runs only about 80 minutes without intermission). But the unfolding of all is like a dream, wherein Arkenholz confers unwittingly with the ghost of a Milkmaid (Ponder Goddard) that Hummel can't see; pines for the beautiful girl (Caitlyn Louchard) in the fancy apartment building, confined to a sweet-smelling Hyacinth Room; and eventually finds his way into the social circle of the girl's family, stunned old richies who are variously mad, morose, and generally not what they seem.
There's an almost hilarious amount of exposition packed into the plot and its several reversals and revelations. But the chamber plays are works of a new era, and for a new era, and The Ghost Sonata — not unlike the naturalistic drama Ghosts by Strindberg's hated contemporary and countryman Henrik Ibsen — seeks to cast a coruscating light on an older generation and its world, to expose and ridicule its corruption, bemoan its stultifying influence on the young, and generally bleed it out like a pus-filled old sore. As darkly shadowed as The Ghost Sonata is, its formal invention is full of air and light to remake the stage and the age.