nytheatre.com review by Lynn Berg
November 7, 2010
There is something in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts that makes it one of his most powerful scripts, in my opinion. The relationships and situation, the story—when performed clearly, honestly, and passionately—overcome its melodramatics and soap-opera-like devices despite the now-known medical fallacy the plot hinges on. It must be more than the play's universal theme of sins of the father being visited upon the children, a subject of tragedy from at least ancient Greek and Biblical times. And it's more than just the relationship of a mother to her son, an elemental component of many ancient myths. Ibsen's play seems itself haunted by its themes and ideas. Whatever it is that makes Ghosts work, Extant Arts Company's production captures it with tormenting fire.
Ghosts takes place on the 10th anniversary of respected benefactor and patriarch John Alving's death. His estranged profligate son, Oswald, returns home to his mother who has long guarded the family secrets. Haunted by those secrets, Mrs. Alving thinks she's protecting her family from those same ghosts. The family executor, Pastor Manders, also believes he keeps those spirits at bay. Even the family servant, Regina, and her father haunt and are haunted by the Alving family legacy. And those malevolent spirits will not easily be kept hidden. Nemonie Craven's script of Ibsen's tightly woven tale is a moving adaptation commissioned for this production. Sophie Hunter's compelling direction of the action and the fine, intense performances by the ensemble give this classic immediacy.
The multimedia production of the play emphasizes elements of fluids and fire. The initiating and recurrent video image by Gary Breslin and luckydave is of dripping rain playing in onstage video monitors and projected onto clear plastic curtains in the back of the set. The enveloping sound design by Asa Wember is lush. And Fiammetta Horvat's set integrates the monitors and cleverly uses wire and IV bags to represent the cold transparent walls of the Alving house.
The multimedia elements of Extant Arts' Ghosts render exciting spectacle that's not normally seen in the play such as interpreting the panic of a raging fire. At other times the concept and design of the production seem to take the task of making the hidden seen and heard almost too literally. In this Ghosts there is always interesting spectacle but sometimes instead of enhancing the action or illuminating the story they become obstacles for the performers to overcome. For the most part, the performers ably do so and even when the production seems lost in its own concepts it seems to be trying to capture the play's essence.
The cast of this Ghosts is excellent and gives fierce, haunted performances. Paulo Quiros avoids Oswald's maudlin trap with devilish charm, at once lovable, dangerous, and damned. Justine Salata and Chris Haag are pitifully human as Regina and Jacob Engstrand trying to twist free from their fates. Anthony Holds is complex as Pastor Manders, wrestling with his demons. And LeeAnne Hutchison gives graceful gravity to Helene Alving's struggle, raising the drama to tragic heights.
Ghosts can seem perplexing in its simplicity. But it's more than the sum of its parts, as if the play itself is possessed by unseen forces. Whatever it is that makes Ibsen's haunted tale work, Craven's incisive adaptation captures it and this ensemble's powerful performances let it loose to possess its audience.