Arin Arbus’s production of Strindberg’s The Father is a slap in the face of the great Swedish playwright, but her misinterpretation shall be rationalized as part of an artist’s creative freedom. The rendering will be defended, like other productions that have similarly overstretched artistic bounds, such as the Foundry Theater’s and Taylor Mack’s LGBTQ Good Person of Szechwan (the author, Margarete Steffin, was writing about herself, a woman, and alter-ego of Bertolt Brecht) and Diane Paulus’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which dispensed with credit for the story and lyrics by DuBose Heyward (Stephen Sondheim sounded off on that one to The New York Times, in 2011, where he believed the work was good enough as written, and could be left intact).

What Arbus has done is to contradict Strindberg’s central thesis—that a father can never know if he is the actual sire of his children (Strindberg wrote the play in 1887, which is why my own wording sounds old fashioned). To do this, the director has formed her cast from only two races, mostly white (so we can’t view the play in terms of the audience being color blind). It's an emperor's new clothes moment when we see a biracial child (the parents are one black and one white): Shouldn't it be obvious that the black father would be able to tell whether he is related or not? Arbus wants to glean maximum comedy from this tormented tragedy, too, which throws John Douglas Thompson into declamation mode, instead of his fine, deeper acting. Neither he nor Maggie Lacey, as the wife, Laura, have to wrestle with ambiguity in front of us, and David Greig’s translation sounds too contemporary, only adding to the feeling of a lost context (much more impressive is his work on Creditors). Greig brings up aliens, for example, which, I believe Strindberg, would have discussed differently, according to other translations I’ve heard (most recently on the BBC in 2013, using Laurie Slade’s brutally compelling version).

It’s not unpopular to disavow Strindberg, but Arbus verges on unconscious disdain. Strindberg has his own raging logic and the right, most convincing director would be someone who can understand it, even in our world of DNA testing.  To come up with a production team with the metal not to want to gang up on the playwright is what's germinal.

At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Theatre for a New Audience (down the street from BAM)

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(2016 by Bob Shuman; all rights reserved)

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