by Deirdre Donovan
Two of Strindberg’s late-career Chamber Plays are revived in a
double-bill by the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre.
Rejoice, Strindberg aficionados! During the month of October, the
August Strindberg Repertory Theatre is presenting a pair of the master’s
Chamber Plays, The Storm and Burnt House, in rotation at the Gene
Frankel Theatre in the East Village.
Strindberg dubbed these plays, “Opus 1” and “Opus 2,”
respectively, to underscore their inherent musical quality.
And one never forgets that music is at the heart of these works.
Even better, there is recorded music wafting over the stage, now and then, to
heighten the atmosphere of pivotal scenes.
Curtis James Nielson (L) as The Consul; Laurence Cantor (R)
as Cabinet Minister. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
The Storm, as adapted and directed by Robert Greer, is
a candid portrait of old age. And, for theatergoers who tend to interpret
plays in an autobiographical light, The Storm will be a window into
Strindberg’s heart and soul in his last years. Is it the best of his marriage
plays? Possibly. It certainly explores the venerable institution and offers
some penetrating insights on its peculiarities and charm.
In the play, we meet an elderly government minister who resides in
an apartment in a country house where he had once lived with his young wife and
child. Having married her at age 50, he made an agreement with his bride that
when his age became a burden he would leave her. True to his word, he
eventually up and left her, losing contact with her and access to their child.
Weary of the solitary life, the Minister is now considering marriage again,
this time to his pretty young housekeeper and third cousin. However, when his
divorced wife and child, and her new husband, surreptitiously rent a room in
the country house, things go topsy-turvy. And the Minister soon realizes, like
it or not, he must confront his past, and settle his accounts with one and all.
The ensemble acting is uneven, but the leading actors are both
excellent and carry the play. Laurence Cantor as the Minister appropriately
projects a gruff and tyrannical air. Curtis James Nielson as his diplomat
brother and lawyer is well-cast too. And when these two principals are
onstage, the dialogue flows naturally and the action is seamless. Another good
performance is turned in by Mary Baynard, as Louise, the Minister’s
housekeeper. I didn’t dislike Alyssa Simon’s performance as the ex-wife. But
she seems slightly miscast here. She clearly looks the part but sometimes acts
L-R: Michael Donaldson, Mark Solari,
Madeleine Saidenberg. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
The accompanying production, Burnt House, is
a whodunit play that puts nearly every character in the play’s world under
suspicion for arson. It’s psychologically chilling—and will keep you on the
edge of your seat.
The plot revolves around a dyer of fabrics whose house has been razed
to the ground by fire. Arson is suspected—and the parades of characters that
come to inspect the charred ruins are the dyer’s two adult sons, various town
folk, a student, and an insurance man. The insurance man, of course is
aggressively interrogating the town denizens and outsiders, suspicious that the
fire was set for monetary gain or sheer malice. As his investigation runs
its course, scandals arise about the dyer’s family and immediately become the
buzz of the town. “Fires always leave evidence in the ruins,” quips the
insurance man as he surveys the ashes.” And before play’s end, his words will
gain much substance and meaning.
Burnt House is a memory play that is cut from the same
cloth as To Damascus and The Great Highway. It is cousin to Dreamplay
and The Ghost Sonata. But, above all, it has its own haunting music
and message: One must confront one’s demons or run the risk of becoming a
“moth to the flame.” Strindberg powerfully shows you what happens when smoke
screens are lifted and the façade of a “respectable” home crumbles to ashes.
No weak links in this cast. Toby MacDonald, Jason Tate, Michael
Donaldson, Mark Solari, Madeleine Saidenberg, Brent White and Theodoric Wells
are uniformly good. No actor stands out but all hold the stage and inhabit
their characters with realism.
Whitney Gail Aronson, who adapted and directs the play, lets Burnt
House do its own rough magic. In a new translation by Robert Greer, the
work still smacks of Strindberg through and through.
Both plays are staged in minimalist style (set design by You-Shin
Chen and lighting by Benjamin Ehrenreich) to evoke Strindberg’s Intimate
Theatre in Stockholm. The period costumes (Janet O’Neill) are handsome, and
capture the air of the early 20th century.
August Strindberg Repertory Theatre is one of the best-kept
secrets in New York. You get to see the popular, and lesser-known works of
Strindberg, for only a pittance. If you missed The Storm and Burnt
House, no worries. Greer, the company’s artistic director, plans to stage
more of Strindberg’s Chamber Plays in the next few seasons. So keep your ear
tuned to this company. They are making some mighty fine music with the
Scandinavian master’s late-career works.
Through October 30th.
At the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street.
For tickets, phone the box office (212) 868-4444 or visit the
company’s website: www.strindbergrep.com
Running time of The Storm: 1 hour with no intermission.
Running time of Burnt House: 1 hour with no intermission.