Ivette Dumeng and Sergio Castillo
photos by Rosalie Baijer.
by Deirdre Donovan
Theater historians tend to extol
the dramatic virtues of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, The Creditors, The
Dance of Death, The Father, and A Dream Play. But Kristina?
Hardly. This historical drama, in fact, seems to be more Strindberg’s
step-child than one of his full-blooded plays.
To correct this, the August
Strindberg Repertory Theatre has taken the play from the page to the stage at
the downtown Gene Frankel Theatre. Whitney Gail Aronson, the company’s
associate artistic director, takes a stab at this rarely staged work and makes it
accessible to the audience. With no fuss or frills, Aronson brings
to life the vibrant personality of Kristina—and one can’t help but feel this 16th
century figure become palpable in the flesh and blood.
Written in 1903, around that
period of time when Harriet Bosse had left Strindberg and ended their
three-year marriage. Indeed the playwright was going through a major
emotional crisis, with his personal life radically changed forever. And
there’s no doubt that his play Kristina reflects the extreme tension and
raw pain that he was experiencing as he began to adapt to the harsh realities
of life without his muse.
While his other plays may be more
celebrated by scholars and critics, this overlooked piece does have significant
merits. First, its protagonist Kristina is right out of history.
Born in 1626, the daughter of Gustav II Adolf the Great, she became his
successor when he died in 1632. Although only a child, she was the
monarch. No frou-frous or petticoats for her. She was forced to leave
her mother and raised as a boy. Then in 1650, almost two decades since
her father’s death, she became ”King of Sweden.” And that’s only the tip
of the historical iceberg that is her story.
Naturally, Strindberg plucks the
story from history’s pages and makes it his own. In his play, Kristina is
battling, not only politically but also socially, religiously, and
sexually. Having had kingship foisted upon her at a tender age, she was
bent on being her own person—and making her own choices. Strindberg, of
course, dramatizes her larger-than-life qualities and quirks. He
alternately portrays her as angel, lesbian, whore, and altogether a mystery to
She was no political or military
genius, however. Truth be told, many accused her of bankrupting the
treasury, and negotiating for peace when war might have been the stronger
move. In any case, Strindberg dramatizes her through his own lens with no
apologies. (In fact, she abdicated her crown in 1654. And instead of
following in her father’s faithful footsteps as a Lutheran, she converted to
Catholicism and eventually transplanted herself to Rome, where five Popes
welcomed this woman-who-once–was-king.
What a treat to see this
historical drama! True, wrapping one’s mind around the world of Kristina
is a tall order. She was physically diminutive but everything else about
her was colossal.
If the story of Kristina
sounds vaguely familiar, it’s no accident. The Hollywood film Queen
Christina starring Greta Garbo, is based on the same historical
material. What’s more, many believe that Hollywood borrowed from
Strindberg’s play, even if the film pundits in tinsel town are tight-lipped
about their source.
Fortunately, Ivette Dumeng
inhabits the heroine Kristina with aplomb. Dumeng undertakes this
demanding role, and without overplaying it, exudes zest
and intelligence. She portrays the historical figure’s confidence and
misgivings alike. In short, she makes her very, very human.
Ivette Dumeng and and Claes
The rest of the cast is competent
but no real standouts. It’s an ensemble, 13 members strong, which appear
to realize the value of not upstaging the titular character.
That said, the creative team does
a lot with a little. Kate Noll’s minimalist set design relies more on
imagination than finery or special effects. Miriam Crowe collaborates
with even lighting, and Andy Evan Cohen delivers subtle sound design.
Jessa-Raye Court stylishly outfits all, from the regal Kristina to the lowly
The real star of the production,
however, is the controversial playwright Strindberg. His Kristina may
never enjoy the laurels of Miss Julie. But it will always stand in
bold relief in his canon. And attention must be paid.
Through March 29th.
At the Gene Frankel Theatre, at 24
Bond Street, Manhattan
For tickets and more information,
phone SMARTTIX, 212-868-4444; www.smarttix.com
Running Time: approximately
2 hours with one intermission.