Thursday, June 24, 2010

I ain't afraid of no "Ghosts"

Ibsen had his axes to grind. Religious hypocrisy, the fear of social disapproval and blind conventionality were at the top of his list. What will people think? It's a deadly thought. People ruined their lives to keep up appearances. Evidently Norway in the 1880s was not a swinging place.

In Ghosts -- the Banyan Theater's latest offering -- Ibsen swings all of his axes. Well, let's switch metaphors. The play reminds me of Mousetrap -- that classic Rube Goldberg-esque toy game where boots kick balls, gears turns and ultimately a cage traps a plastic mouse. Here, the wheels turn, and at the end, a charity asylum burns down, rotten secrets emerge, and the machinery crashes down on a young painter. (He's been running with the early free love crowd, but forced to return home to mom.) The family maid he's fallen in love with is his sister. His saintly father was actually a randy bastard. (Mom covered it up and faked dad's sainthood. What will people think?) Dad passed his brain pox on to sonny boy. Now, he's going mad with syphilis. Blind too. OK, that's the bad news. There's no good news. He begs for death. Mom, be my Mother Morphine. Please kill me. It's living damnation; hell on earth. This play is so grim you expect the playwright to add "The dog died" as a postscript.

Letting the horror of the past touch you takes an imaginative leap. If the 1800s was the age of hide-it-all, ours is the age of tell-it-all. The free-to-be-you-and-me crowd won out a long time ago. Lady Gaga and Howard Stern can be a pain in the ass. But a cult of self-immolation at the altar of the ghosts of the mind seems worse.

As someone once said, the past is another country. Based on this play, I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there.

OK, now a quick take on the Banyan performance itself.

Contemporary translators Rick Davis and Brian Johnston put Ibsen through the Pinter blender. Gil Lazier follows their lead and turns the flame down on Ibsen’s histrionics. Peter Thomasson plays Pastor Manders as a prick. Jessica Peterson plays Helene (the mom) as a tower of strength with cracks in it. (There are cracks of self-contradiction in Ibsen’s original characterization. Somebody that strong wouldn’t be a coward. I don’t buy it, but let it pass.) Steven Clark Pachosa plays the smarmy, gimpy con artist and gets most of the laughs in the play. Gretchen Porro plays Regina, the maid who’s really the sister. She plays it straight. Not oversexed—just sexed. A typical teenager in a bad time and place to be a teenager. As the doomed son Osvald, Gordon Myles Woods kicks ass. A damn tough role, but he totally lives it and makes you buy his character.

These characters go through hell. The actors put in a hell of a performance.

A Banyan Theater Company production
Through July 11
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

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