Henrik Ibsen+Jon Fosse:Norway Meets New York:deathvariations
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 9, 2006
deathvariations is a taut, gripping exploration of—among other things—our frequent and tragic inability to recognize what's right before us. It begins with a woman, nearing the end of middle age, visiting her ex-husband after years of estrangement. She's come with a purpose: she brings the news that their daughter, a grown woman (but of what age we never precisely know), has died, possibly a suicide.
What follows is not a portrait of grief and recrimination, though that figures into things, but rather a look back at fragments of the three lives—the woman's, the husband's, and the daughter's—as playwright Jon Fosse exposes the nature of the daughter's journey to the place she ended up. Was it something the parents did, something that perhaps, as they look back, they could have done differently? Or was it, purely and simply, the daughter's destiny? The latter is strongly hinted at by the presence of an enigmatic unnamed stranger, the daughter's "friend," a presence at once loving and nurturing but also forbidding and threatening.
We see the mother and father at the very beginning of their marriage. The match seems rooted in a kind of love but also, perhaps even more, in circumstance and desperation: she's pregnant, he's unemployed, they're both young and trying to make sense of how to handle the situation. As time passes, we can see that they find a way: he gets some kind of job and she raises the daughter to be at least superficially healthy and self-sufficient. But the marriage crumbles and the daughter is never known by either parent. Fosse depicts, in tight, dense, but very spare scenes that jump around chronologically in the daughter's however-many-decades-long life, the failure to connect that ultimately unites the three members of this tragic family.
The language is sparse and mundane and monosyllabic: everyone tells everyone else "Yah" all the time, but the irony is that actual understanding (let alone empathy) never seems to actually occur. Fosse's script, as rendered by Sarah Cameron Sunde's nearly poetical translation, captures the rhythms of daily life as simply time passing, with our craving to be understood always bubbling under the surface.
Sunde also directs this production, which is the American premiere of this play by the Norwegian dramatist. It's staged on a stark set by Lauren Helpern that suggest the frame of a house (as opposed to a home); Mary Louise Geiger's lighting helps position us in the present and in memory, and David Margolin Lawson's sound and Cristian Amigo's music help to evoke the desolate mood of Fosse's lean, disturbing drama. Costumes by Courtney Logan are quite effective, with the younger versions of the mother and father slowly morphing, via the external trappings of their clothing, into their older (present-day) selves.
The cast is also fine, with particularly strong work offered by Charles Borland, who is endlessly compelling and charismatic as the daughter's mysterious "friend"; Natalia Payne as the daughter, convincingly transforming from a naive child to a sad adult who has seemingly been deserted by her family; and David L. Townsend as the younger version of the father. Rounding out the ensemble are Deborah Knox as the younger mother and Diane Ciesla and Dick Hughes as the older versions of the parents.
deathvariations comes to New York via Oslo Elswehere, a Norwegian-American company whose noble mission is to bring contemporary works from Norway to our shores. We need to hear the voices of contemporary playwrights from abroad: the world may seem smaller thanks to the Internet and TV, but it also feels like it gets more and more insular, with the mainstream NYC theatre particularly isolated from works that don't come from English-speaking countries. So this group deserves the theatre community's support, especially for having brought us such a richly interesting, raw piece of work that looks so uncompromisingly at the ways we fail to reach even the ones who are closest to us.