Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pearl of Wisdom

Pendleton and Cover in Rosmersholm (Photo by Gregory Costanzo)
A play by Henrik Ibsen

Adapted by Mike Poulton
Directed by Elinor Renfield
Starring Robin Leslie Brown, Bradford Cover, Dominic Cuskern, Dan Daily, Austin Pendleton, Margot White

Performances through December 19, 2010
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street

Apparently, along with his considerable skills as a dramatist, Henrik Ibsen was also something of a seer: his classic (and very political) 1886 play Rosmersholm not only took the pulse of his homeland’s divisive political landscape but also saw ahead to 21st century disillusionment with American democracy.

Ibsen’s drama tracks the political change of Johannes Rosmer, a wealthy widower who has decided, with help from his deceased wife Beata’s friend Rebecca West, who still lives with him a year since her suicide, that he will support the new socialist government. Needless to say, his decision does not go over well with his brother-in-law, Doctor Kroll, among the area’s leading conservative politicians. Kroll, who knows Rebecca’s checkered past, confronts her and Rosmer about her amoral “free-thinking” ways, which have also caused Rosmer, an ex-pastor, to reject his Christian beliefs as well.

Rosmersholm has been updated by adapter Mike Poulto, in spirit at least, to our current polarized climate. So Kroll states that Rosmer is either with him or against him, alluding to our last president’s admonition during the Global War on Terror. Kroll is also is aghast that the left-wing (liberal) media is at odds with whom he calls “right-minded” citizens. “What happened to civilized, honest debate?” is pointedly asked by Rosmer, and though these themes are in Ibsen’s play, Poulto’s added tweaking/modernizing the language/allusions ensures that every member of the audience gets the connection.

Poulto didn’t have to modernize Ibsen’s already trenchant observations on religion and politics, starting with Rosmer’s shocking turning away from his own beliefs. When the editor of the left-leaning newspaper wants to report that Rosmer will be supporting its agenda, he categorically says that he will not mention his choice to turn to atheism, which says all we need to know about undue religious influence in the political arena, whether it’s 1886 or 2010.

The unambiguous final image of Rosmer and Rebecca in a frozen embrace as his surprised housekeeper Mrs. Helseth describes their double suicide is the most effective of director Elinor Renfield’s visuals: considering the cramped stage she’s working with, Renfield’s blocking is imaginatively done. Also, her decision to use Arvo Part’s minimalist chamber music gives the drama a decidedly modernist edge.

Although contemporary in speech and bearing, Austin Pendleton enlivens the role of Dr. Kroll, including wielding the man’s walking stick as if it were a weapon. Margot White not only looks sufficiently Scandinavian but gives an emotionally convincing reading of the complex anti-heroine. If Bradford Cover makes a merely adequate rather than inspired Rosmer, it’s not a fatal flaw.

Like all master playwrights, Ibsen wrote works that not only stand the test of time, but are continually relevant in our time. If this version of Rosmersholm sometimes pushes his points too often and obviously, it remains a dramatic exploration of politics that’s too much missing from today’s stages, with the lone exception being Richard Nelson’s That Hopey Changey Thing, unfortunately now closed.

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