REVIEW: The Ghost Sonata (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle’s ‘Ghost Sonata’ doesn’t sing

 

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Oracle Theatre presents
 
The Ghost Sonata
 
by August Strindberg
directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through June 19th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata is a tough play to crack open. Written over a century ago, the masterpiece is considered a wonder of Modernist drama. Therefore, it has plenty of bizarre twists and characterizations (vampires and ghosts, anyone?).  Especially now, when we’re used to straightforward stories force-fed through movies and television, the piece is hard to navigate. Oracle Theatre and director Max Truax certainly take up this challenge with their heavily-expressionistic version. Even though they engage Strindberg with honesty and compassion, the end product leaves us bewildered and groping for answers.

ghost_sonata_press_2_resizeYou may want to read a translation of the play before setting out for this production. Truax and his driven cast seem very concerned with conveying mood and themes, but to the detriment of plot and clarity. I had the feeling that everyone onstage knew what was going on but I wasn’t completely welcome. It was like looking through a very dusty window. After a few scenes, it is possible to piece together the general story, but this production doesn’t help much in terms of leading the audience through Strindberg’s dense text.

Truax and his design team create a bizarrely fascinating world, conquering the sometimes awkward Oracle space. There were some amazing stage pictures formed by Truax (doubling as set designer), who whipped up some awesome forced perspective. Although the video projections sometimes confuse the storyline, Michael Janicki’s work fits the twisted world well, with vaguely Victorian black-and-white images appearing in a frame above the action.

The audience enters to Rich Logan looking all comatose in a wheelchair. As the elderly Jacob Hummel, he pushes and manipulates the play forward, imparting plenty of creepiness to the already dark script. Strindberg’s text revolves around a Student (Federico Rodriguez), who meets a cast of wacky characters, including the scheming Hummel, a mummy (Ann Sonneville), a ghostly maid (Lily Emerson), and a dead guy (John Arthur Lewis). Again, even though each of the actors understands and brings life to their characters, the gothic world is not very well explained. Rodriguez carries the show, although sometimes he doesn’t recognize the close relationship he has to the audience. Stephanie Polt fits well into the oppressive world as the object of the Student’s affection, but Sean Ewert as her father, the Colonel, doesn’t match the others. Justin Warren can also fall out of the production’s universe, but he brings some much needed comic relief.

While the performances usually deeply connect to the text, they don’t fit into the space. Truax and his actors seem unaware of how to utilize Oracle’s intimate stage. When emotions run high, the actors often resort to screaming. The audience gets irritated and interest flags. In such an enclosed and small theatre, overplaying can be disastrous. This Ghost Sonata isn’t ruined by yelling, but some over-the-top moments knock down the impact of the play.

Besides clarity, the biggest issue afflicting Truax’s production is a lack of humor. Yes, this is a dark, turn-of-the-century, proto-Expressionistic script, but there has to be some releases—Strindberg, being a master dramatist, pens them in. Avoiding the humor can make the play feel highly melodramatic and uninteresting. There are some nuggets of humor, but most of it is swept away to make way for dreariness.

Truax’s production is very conceptual and looks pretty cool, but fails to respect Strindberg’s text. The focus is too much on theme and not enough on story. The talent is obviously there; with a few exceptions, it seemed like the whole cast was on-board and clicking with each other. The design makes some very innovative choices that you might not expect from a storefront. Oracle’s Achilles’ Heal here is storytelling; Truax finds great skin but uses a weak skeleton.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

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REVIEW: Minna (Trap Door Theatre)

American Premier Is Absurd Entertainment

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Trap Door Theatre presents:

Minna

by Howard Barker
directed by Nicole Wiesner
thru February 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

minna_high_res2 It’s a pompous thing to create and name your own style of theatre. Some might say to do so takes a lunatic. Enter Howard Barker.

Barker is a British playwright who currently heads up his own company, The Wrestling School. The Wrestling School serves as a testing ground for his homemade, self-named theatrical genre, “Theatre of Catastrophe.” This style, according to Barker, “takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut.” Furthermore, Barker does not anchor his work in realism or any sort of ideology. He is of the idea that art should be bold and challenging. And boy is his work challenging…and, surprisingly, rewarding.

Minna is a jaw-droppingly complex piece of theater. It bewilders and amazes on so many levels, like viewing a three-ring circus under the influence of some potent hallucinogen. Even as I write this, I find it difficult to describe the small semblance of a plot, yet the emotion the play draws out flows as if I’m currently watching the production. Really, it’s like a nightmare that just lingers with you for days.

To the best of my understanding, the play is about a young woman named Minna (Geraldine Dulex). She and the rest of the characters span two time periods, switching back and forth rather seamlessly and without warning. The first time period appears to be the 18th century. Men wear boots and frilly shirts while women don dresses that accentuate their bottom halves. Two corpses hang in the background—in fact they hang for the entire play, occasionally pleading to Minna, warning her of some fate they wish her not to befall. There is a military man named Tellheim (Kevin Cox) who evokes fear, anger and lust from Minna. A landlord (Derek Ryan) with a case of split personality presides over Minna’s quarters while three women, all named Fransisca (Sadie Rogers, Pamela Maurer and Kinga Modjeska), follow Minna dotingly like shadows.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall is all but obliterated as the Count (John Gray), a stereotypical British fop, takes a seat in the middle of the audience at the start of the show. He hems and haws throughout, making lewd comments in between stuffing his face with fruit and gazing through his opera glasses.

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The other time period is more contemporary, whisking the characters away to the mid-20th century. In this world, Minna is a powerful attorney and her antagonist, Tellheim, is on trial. Other characters appear as their parallel selves.

If Barker’s mission was to dash, subvert and corrupt any expectations the audience has of what might happen at any moment within the play, then he is absolutely successful. Randomness abounds as characters act out forced sexual acts, cross dress and occasionally call each other by the actors’ names. It’s a play that doesn’t want to be a play. It wants to be performance art. Yet it is a play, and a damn good one.

All the actors in the production must be commended. The dialogue is some of the most difficult I’ve ever witnessed. Often it has no semblance of reason. It’s seemingly random at parts, yet poignant at others. Often it’s delivered with the mania of a mad man. Yet all actors manage to channel this insanity into something real, something worth watching. No. More than worth watching—something great. This was art.

Minna is the directorial debut for Trap Door ensemble member Nicole Wiesner. Like the actors, she manages to construe something completely insane into a complex, yet digestible, production. Oftentimes every character on stage is doing something, making some face or emoting some feeling. Wiesner consistently manages to convey this without drowning out the point of focus.

Minna is definitely not for all. It’s a bucking bronco of a play that tries hard to shake the audience. But come prepared for the absurd, and hold on tight. It’s well worth it.

Rating: ★★★★

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