Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Taste of Ibsen

OK, here's my take on A Taste of Ibsen, a series of Ibsen vignettes hosted by Home Resource -- a defiantly modern furniture showroom in downtown Sarasota. Six segments in modern dress. Movable feast theater that shifted from showroom to showroom. Loved it. Before I get into it -- here's a quick disclaimer about Ibsen.

Ibsen was a great playwright, no doubt. But he tends to be didactic. He has points to make. His plays are clockwork machinery designed to make those points. Ibsen's machinery gets on my nerves. Sorry.

But director Dr. Louise Stinespring's production neatly sidesteps the clockwork. Brilliant strategy. By taking key scenes out of context, she makes the scenes stand alone. She rubs out the captions on Ibsen's editorial cartoons. What's left is the art -- and you're free to appreciate it.

Stinespring cuts are prime cuts: two from A Doll House (Amanda Schlacter and Kevin Rose), a slice from An Enemy of the People (Mark Konrad and Jeremy Heideman), two from Hedda Gabler (Jeremy Heideman, Schlachter, Heather O'Dea) and one from The Lady from the Sea (Konrad, O'Dea).

The selections share a theme of transformation.

The soulless little Christmas from A Doll House nicely time-shifted the scene to a modern context. To our eyes, Nora's husband is a passive-aggressive jerk. He drowns his wife in the sugary maple syrup of his sickly sweet, lovey-dovey talk. She's a squirrel, a wren -- but she's also a spendthrift and a mindless fool. Torvald's endearments put Nora in her place; create the walls of her Doll House prison. His love is a power trip in disguise. It's horrifying to watch. We catch on as Nora catches on. And we realize this can't go on. We realize the transformation she's going through.

In the first scene, Nora's waking up to her rotten reality, but still not facing it. In the last scene, she breaks free of that reality. She ain't gonna work on Torvald's Doll House no more. Nora's transformed into a new being -- a new woman -- the progenitor of many New Women to come.

In Hedda Gabler, the writer and the young woman begin an awakening -- a possibility Hedda viciously aborts.

The dude in An Enemy of the People transforms into a whistle-blower. Another new kind of being.

Stinespring's timing is damn near perfect. No dead moments, a smart use of the unconventional space. The performance flowed. The actors moved with streamlined grace. They effortlessly transformed the showrooms into ad hoc sets. (At least they made it seem effortless.) The audience was relaxed too. It's nice to get up in middle of a performance and move around. Really cuts down on leg cramps.

The acting is some of the best I've seen. Schlacter's characterizations were standouts--a heartbreaking Nora and a bone-chilling Hedda. Rose nailed the ick factor as Nora's patronizing husband. As the writer's doomed mistress, O'Dea offered a pitiable naivete. She doesn't know the score, and she's going to pay. Konrad brought a Jonathan Winters vibe to his two blowhard authority figures. He had the audience laughing at several points. I imagine Ibsen up in the clouds somewhere shouting No! Those scenes weren't meant to be funny!) But I like Konrad's choices.

While we're on the subject, I like the director's choices to. Speaking of transformations, she transformed my opinion of Ibsen. There's more to his plays than clockwork, go figure.

These excerpts show what Ibsen's good at. He was brilliant at showing how character transforms. He was also a proto-feminist, and made many strong feminist statements – mostly saying stop treating women like crap. Those statements are clear to modern audiences, though I suspect dudes in the 1880s were egging Torvald on (Yes! Put that spendthrift in her place!). Ibsen clearly took risks.

Aside from the performance itself, I liked the clever, non-traditional setting of the performance. (I wasn't alone. The people who filled the space had a nice camaraderie.) In a weird way, seeing a play in a cool furniture shop changes your appreciation of the material. It ducks the whole sitting-in-church, suffering-for-art thing. You're not sitting in a stiff theater seat. It’s some cutting-edge, ergonomic furniture, man. Couches, settees. Some woman was even lounging on a bed.

When the last scene ended, I didn’t want to leave the theater. I was actually comfy. When does that happen?

A great night of theater -- that wasn't in the theater.

More, please.

‘A Taste of Ibsen
Sept. 30 - Oct. 2
Home Resources
741 Central Ave # A, Sarasota,

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