Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Black Glove

photo: Jonathan Slaff

August Strindberg wrote a children’s play? Strindberg? That great melancholic? So it would seem. August Strindberg Rep (Off-off-Broadway) has produced his final play, The Black Glove. It was written in 1909 and first produced in 1910. It was the fifth of his chamber plays, but not usually included in collections of those plays. It’s rarely produced and was indeed written, purportedly, for children.

Strindberg’s best known for his expressionism, but this play is set in an apartment building - seven floors and 21 units with heat, electricity and telephones. The Professor lives in the attic and The Caretaker lives in the basement. Among the tenants living between them is a bad-natured young Wife, who calls the building a “strange house where human destinies are piled one on the other side by side”. Also present are The Christmas Angel (the play is set on December 23rd and 24th) and an Elf.

The Wife, it seems, has lost a ring and a glove, and she blames one of the maids for the theft of the ring. To set the plot, such as it is, going, the Elf kidnaps the Wife’s baby - just for a day, and just because the Wife is so mean - at the request of The Christmas Angel.

Of course, all ends happily, and with nearly no plot twists. The glove is returned with the ring in it. The Wife asks for forgiveness, and her baby is returned to her.

Every Strindberg fan should see this play. It’s written in verse, and it shows a delicate side of the playwright that we might otherwise overlook.  It makes us realize that the despair in his plays was put there by design, not because he didn’t know any other way to write.

The various lines of the play reveal some interesting Strindbergian ideas. There’s a distrust of technology: “You might as well call it a ghost house…. I think these machines brought something with them.” And, more metaphysically, a surprising faith, “This is no human-handed work and therefore there is hope.” And there’s something genuinely profound being expressed when the Elf tells the Professor: “Do not get too close, for if you do you cease to see me.” The Professor echoes, of all people, Emily Dickinson when he says he’ll be happy “If I can make just one human heart glad.” 

August Strindberg Rep does a terrific job with this play in its production at The Gene Frankel Theatre, Off-off-Broadway. Director Robert Greer has mounted the show expertly, on a stage nearly bare, as the playwright would like. It’s all clear and precise. He’s limited the casting to women, and they give the show a gentle quality. The translation by Anne-Charlotte Harvey is nice and delicate, but she mixes contractions with non-contractions. Jo Vetter as the Professor and Diane Perell as The Caretaker give us very good work, but the show owes its success largely to Pilar Garcia as the Elf. She’s terrific in the role in her pointed red cap, with a fake beard and with bushy eyebrows that she raises delightfully.

Unfortunately, the cast, for the most part, speak the verse too slowly, word-by-word instead of phrase-by-phrase. And in the play’s pivotal scene, between The Professor and The Elf, Ms. Vetter lets her emotional life get the best of her delivery and we lose some of the words when The Professor has a vision. What’s more, Strindberg specified that the child must not be seen, and Mr. Greer has represented him with a doll.

That pivotal scene, by the way, is pretty darn heavy with philosophy. Strindberg rather leaves us behind sometimes, even in this play.

Is this show suited for children? I doubt it. It’s more of children’s theater as a form than theater for children. It’s symbolism, actually, faux-naif. But Congratulations to the August Strindberg Rep. The Black Glove is welcome.

Steve Capra
December 2017