Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mr. Bengt’s Wife


Mr. Bengt’s Wife

by August Strindberg
produced by The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre
directed by Craig Baldwin
translated by Malin Tybahl and Laurence Carr
at the Gene Frankel Theatre
off-off Broadway
The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre has laudably taken on the task of presenting Strindberg’s plays off-off Broadway. Its fourth production is is Mr. Bengt’s Wife. The play concerns a willful and unlikable young woman, Margit, who leaves the convent to marry an aristocrat, only to find a year later that her husband has met financial ruin.

August Strindberg wrote Mr. Bengt’s Wife in 1882, three years after Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House scandalized audiences with its own story of a woman with a husband no-longer-solvent. The two plays are often compared, with Bengt considered a response to Ibsen’s play. Ibsen’s Nora, of course, walks out on her family, and Stindberg’s script hinges, in part, on Margit’s impulse to leave her husband and baby daughter.
The mutual influence of Strindberg and Ibsen is remarkably clear. “Duty and force go hand in hand.” Margit says; the idea flows through Ibsen’s work. Ibsen kept a picture of Strindberg over his desk and said that couldn’t write “without that madman’s eyes staring down at me.” The admiration was not mutual.

But in comparing Bengt to Ibsen, Doll’s House is less important than Hedda Gabler, which appeared eight years later then Bengt. The relationships structure is remarkably similar: the frustrated wife of a financially ruined man (yet another one) is surrounded by the triangle of her husband and two, well, man-friends. Hedda, of course, blows her brains out; at least Strindberg’s anti-heroine survives.

In The Strindberg Repertory Theatre’s production, director Craig Baldwin presents the play through the screen of expressionism. The show has some marvelous moments when the actors not in the scene surround Margit like apparitions, or like thoughts themselves. The rectangular wooden frame that is the set – defining walls and ceiling – moves around her as well, and it’s beautiful. We get some nice moments as well when Baldwin has a couple of characters address us.

He keeps things moving allegro, which is usually a good idea, but here it gives his actors no chance to create depth. And from time to time the dialogue is underscored the dialogue with dreadful new age music.

As imaginative as the concept is, the production simultaneously lacks self-control. It’s out of control from the first scene when Margit, in her convent, jumps up and down on a chair like a lunatic. In that role, Kersti Bryan screeches throughout the first act. She’s trying to be youthful and energetic, but with her voice uncontrolled, she’s annoying. Baldwin doesn’t give her any help in the role when he blocks her in the second act to pace like a marathon runner warming up. It’s interesting blocking, but being interesting isn’t enough. It’s intrusive.

Mlle Bryan’s saving moment comes near the end of the play, when she recounts a dream, her voice low, emotionally secure, surrounded by those ghostly figures. We finally get the flow of unblocked emotion that expressionism demands.

The actors are serviceable, but often without emotional grounding. As the luckless husband, Mr. Bengt, Eric Percival gives a terrific performance. He handles the Strindbergian emotional excess wonderfully. Even when he’s called on to kneel before Margit he manages to be believable and commanding. 

Let’s hope that the Strindberg repertory continues to give us more of these under-produced plays. But their interesting techniques need to explicate the drama.