In the past few weeks New York theatergoers have been able to contemplate Scandinavian-style socialism, comparing it to what the expected new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, would call our own failed experiment. Elling, a short-lived Broadway production, based on Ingvar Ambjornsen’s novel and a Norwegian 2002 Oscar-nominated film, is rather harmless material, despite forays into phone sex and the objectification of women (and men, especially if you watch the movie). Such tonal shifts indicate a difference between our cultures—you’ll see it also in Nordic films like The Emigrants or Fanny and Alexander where language or a sex scene breaks the comfort of what Hollywood studios would have made PG viewing. Here, two men, previously consigned to a mental hospital, are deemed well enough to be roommates in state subsidized housing in Oslo. The larger question of the play is whether they’ll be able to make it in the outside world without being institutionalized again. Were our own anxieties over health care not so pronounced, the play might have worked like a quirky folk tale served with pork and gravy and sauerkraut; instead, most Americans would either find these characters plenty well enough to do some work or question why they weren’t homeless. Ann Coulter, of course, has called Sweden “one of the left’s favorite countries”–and I assume she would include Norway close by on her list, too–but even liberals who do admire these nations, and what they represent, know, in the middle of a brutal, continuous partisan war at home, too much is at stake to be able to identify with characters whose medical care is seemingly taken for granted. The jagged edges of this work are missing, the sickening, frightening aspects of mental illness—the play is well manufactured but soulless, slight and coy when, in our context, it needs to be demonstrating an alternative, a solution. You feel a movie’s weightlessness and the actors (Brendan Fraser, Denis O’Hare, Jennifer Coolidge, and Richard Easton) verge on playing types. In the functional Elling, the people who end up produced by a nanny state come across as being generic.
Interestingly, the Norwegian constitution was inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, but it would be difficult to confuse the results in social programming regarding each country today. Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, currently playing at the Pearl Theatre Company, can help ascertain Norway’s political trajectory—but, perhaps more surprisingly—it has the inherent potential to reflect the cultural tensions seething in the U.S. now. As director Elinor Renfield–who, with her actors, is working on a challenging three-sided stage–explains in her program note, “In 1885 the liberal party emerged victorious in Norway. In its wake, Ibsen observed a fanaticism and bitterness of spirit in the competition for control of the country that appalled him. The prevailing, vulgar tone drowned out all rational discussion.” Sound familiar? If there was ever a time to decode this great, strong, merciless play, it is now, where, in Mike Poulton’s accessible adaptation, we hear about Norway’s own problems with the “hopey changey thing.” Rosmersholm’s politics have usually seemed arcane when it is read or viewed, obligatory for the climb to a torturous summit in the final act—here, however, the debate is alive. Austin Pendleton stamps his cane and silences the house in this production, pulling the audience into his loss of an election, a sister, and his children. His Kroll may actually be one of the only sympathetic conservatives you’ll see in New York theatre this season—if in any.
It’s problematic to evaluate Rosmersholm’s leads, despite the fact that the actors (Margot White and Bradford Cover) are so invested in the parts (I feel certain, that for themselves, they have found the doomed, unconsummated love between the characters—I’m just not sure that they’ve found the difficult characterizations of Johannes and Rebecca for us). Maybe no one really can; the bar may simply have been placed too high, or they may simply be apparitions from another time. The writer David E. Outerbridge has noted, “Freud wrote extensively about Rebecca. Shaw considered Rosmersholm Ibsen’s best play”—the Ibsen scholar Toril Moi believes that it’s a masterpiece, as well. Outerbridge has also written, “Rebekka (the spelling of her name depends upon your source) West’s suicide in the final act is not obviously foreshadowed in the script. Thus the actors must carefully prepare for it in the earlier scenes or it makes no sense.” In the two productions of the play I’ve seen, I’ve found the last act ponderous, although I do blame it on myself. I love the harsh points Ibsen is making about becoming one’s own judge and beating oppression. I also love his beautiful words on “storms over the sea” and “mountain peaks under the midnight sun.” Liv Ullmann has said, “[Rosmersholm] is one of the greatest stories of love. Rebekka is destructive in her love . . . but she is a woman whose passion comes from the deepest core.” Ingmar Bergman has been quoted, too, “Rosmersholm was the most passionate of all of Ibsen’s plays . . . the last act is one of the most erotic scenes ever written for the theatre. The erotic element is uppermost throughout the play . . . Rosmer must be magnetic, charismatic, but, at the same time, totally, passive and remote.”
Even if you decide that Ibsen’s proofs do not force the final actions in this play; even if you believe that Scandinavia should not be a model for U.S. reform; even if you think that Ibsen is hopelessly out of vogue, the realization, upon watching these productions, is that through such a largely ignored theatrical sector, America is refinding herself.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
Photograph by Gregory Costanzo. From L to R: Bradford Cover (Johannes Rosmer) and Margot White (Rebecca West).
American Premiere of a new version adapted by Mike Poulton
Directed by Elinor Renfield
Running: November 12 – December 19, 2010
New light shines in a dark house—passion and hope burst into a stagnant world through an older man’s love for a crusading young woman who dreams of a new egalitarian society. But a secret lurks in the shadows, one that could end their crusade before it begins. Emotionally charged, politically provocative, Ibsen’s haunting ROSMERSHOLM, tells of democratic ideals tested by harsh realities, friends turned enemies, and a terrible price yet to be paid.
Act 1: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Act 2: 1 hour
Matinee performances end at 5:05pm
Evening performances end at 10:05pm
The Pearl Theatre Company
Administrative Offices: 307 West 38th Street – Suite 1805 – New York, NY 10018 – Phone: 212.505.3401 – Audience Services Phone: 212.598.9802
Visit the Pearl Theatre Company Web site: The Pearl Theatre Company: http://www.pearltheatre.org/index.php
Administrative Offices: 307 West 38th Street – Suite 1805 – New York, NY 10018 – Phone: 212.505.3401 Audience Services Phone: 212.598.9802
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