The Performant: Strindberg sans helium

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A singular marathon

Preparing for a marathon of theatre is similar to preparing for any other kind. Of paramount importance: lots of rest, good hydration, comfortable layers.

This year’s test of my theatre-going tenacity, clocking in at 11.5 hours, came courtesy of the ever-ambitious Cutting Ball Theater, who, with translator Paul Walsh, have been preparing for this event for years: the production of a five-play cycle of August Strindberg’s “chamber plays,” written in the last years of his life. After a year-long series of staged readings, and creation of an archival website, the Strindberg cycle debuted in repertory on October 12, including four all-day marathons of the entire cycle of which I attended the first (the last will play this Sunday, November 18). 

Here's the play-by-play:

High noon: Settled in our seats we get the obligatory rundown of the planned marathon route, safety announcements, and acknowledgments, after which the cycle kicks off with both bang and whimper. The lonely howl of a night wind groans above the figure of an elderly man haunted by memories of a lady, dazzling in a red, floor-length gown and long velvet gloves, holding her hand out to him. These silent vignettes precede each piece, boiling down the heart of each into a single powerful image.

The first leg lasts just under three hours. Written in 1907, the plots of both “Storm” and “Burned House” revolve around a pair of elderly brothers, played in both instances by James Carpenter and Robert Parsons. The tone is somber, grim, accentuated by the heavy dark wood of Michael Locher’s set, the almost soporific murmuring of Cliff Caruthers’ sound design, and the ice-cold lighting palette of York Kennedy. The pace is deliberate, unhurried, almost languid, the action mostly confined to verbal showdowns and uncomfortable revelations. The calm in the center of “Storm,” the practical, incurious housemaid played by Ponder Goddard, points to a redemptive path not taken, while in “Burned House,” the crime of arson tarnishes even the most innocent characters with a patina of suspicion, almost noirish in its relentless besmirch. 

4:30pm: After a coffee and stretch break the second leg of our journey, “The Ghost Sonata” quickly assumes a level of domestic intrigue only hinted at by the first two plays. Another elderly man nearing the end of his days (James Carpenter again) takes on a youthful protégé (Carl Holvick-Thomas), promising to make him his heir. That’s about the most prosaic moment of the play, as ghosts wander in and out of each character’s periphery, an elderly woman who believes she is a parrot becomes an avenging angel, and a young woman surrounded by “virginal” hyacinths succumbs to her own death perhaps for no other reason than that she’d nothing left to say.

6pm: A welcome dinner break arrives, a time for fortification and rumination, or anyhow Thai food and Irish whiskey. 

8:30pm: The last laps of our journey are, by design, the most harrowing. “The Pelican” features the most dysfunctional family yet (it hardly seems possible). A cruel mother played to the hilt by Danielle O’Hare, who might be about thirty years too young to portray a matriarch who recently celebrated her silver anniversary, but whose fierce, uncompromising demeanor give her villainy an enjoyable heft. Her sleazy, social-climbing son-in-law Axel (Carl Holvick-Thomas) and her cringing, abused children (Caitlyn Louchard and Nick Trengrove) give her ire plenty of reach and when her own comeuppance comes its hard not to feel disappointed that such a witch could not be suffered to live.

By contrast, O’Hare’s self-absorbed character in the evening’s final play “The Black Glove,” gets an opportunity to redeem her reputation in the eyes of her household, as well as those of a pair of supernatural beings (David Sinaiko and Ponder Goddard) sent to teach her a lesson on Christmas—shades of A Christmas Carol. It’s described as Strindberg’s most light-hearted chamber play, but by 11pm weariness begins to take its toll, and my patience for redemptive speechifying worn thin. But when at last the marathon ends at 11:30 a sudden rush of adrenaline buoys us all up and over the finish line, everyone a winner. 

 

 

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