Thursday, October 2, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—"Scenes from a Marriage"

Scenes from a Marriage
Written by Ingmar Bergman; English version by Emily Mann; directed by Ivo van Hove
Performances through October 26, 2014
New York Theatre Workshop, New York, NY
Scenes from a Marriage (photo: Jan Versweyveld)
Scenes from a Marriage, one of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman's greatest films, has received a tantalizing stripping-down on its way to the stage. That was in Munich back in 1981, when Bergman himself directed his own adaptation of his masterly cinematic exploration of the 20-year relationship of Johan and Marianne, in and out of their marriage. The German-language production was, by all accounts, a rousing success, and if one can track down a copy of the book Ingmar Bergman: A Project for the Theatre, one can read Bergman's own play, which distills the laser-like focus of the six-part, five-hour television mini-series (edited to 169 minutes by Bergman himself for theatrical release) into an even narrower, pointed psychological anlaysis.

Instead of Bergman's own stage version in New York, however, we are getting Scenes from a Marriage as concocted by Ivo van Hove, the Flemish director famous (or infamous) for his deconstructions of classic texts: here, his treatment is a superficially clever travesty of a masterpiece.

Emily Mann gets credit for the English version, but it's van Hove who stamps this staging with his own brand of willfully perverse tampering. For the first act, which comprises the first three scenes we see of Johan and Marianne's marriage, the audience is split into three groups to successively watch the scenes, all performed simultaneously in three different spaces by three different couples. (The audience groups move to new sets of seats to watch each scene.) As each couple enacts its scene, the small space allows the (often yelling) voices from the other two scenes to bleed through, while strategically placed windows at the back of each stage allow audience members to catch what's going on in the other two spaces. 

That it doesn't add up too much illumination is beside the point, which apparently is that van Hove is attempting to make this couple's story more universal by casting Johan and Marianne in triplicate, despite the fact that none of his cast looks similar or is even age-appropriate. And van Hove's cast isn't a patch on Bergman's magisterial performers, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who created exacting, individualized characters who were also Everyman and Everywoman through sheer force of their volcanic talent and, of course, their writer-director's genius.

After a 30-minute intermission in which the crew dismantles the smaller stages to leave one large, mostly empty performing space, Act II comprises the final three scenes of Bergman's magnum opus. To one-up both Bergman and his own tripling conceit, van Hove has all the Johans and Mariannes act out scenes four and five simultaneously, their words often echoing what what one or another has just said, the dialogue overlapping to the point that one cannot hear clearly what is being said. (There's also a cheap-laugh moment when all three couples, after each retreating to the corners of the space behind the audience, make love and seemingly climax together.)

The effect is one of sheer irrationality; and later, during the big fight between the divorcing partners, three sets of couples roll around on the floor in marital and martial war, the whole thing becomes an acting class in which an unimaginative teacher asks students to perform a laboriously physical exercise in front of the others. 

What Bergman accomplished with incomparable acting and Sven Nykvist's impeccable cinematography (alternating between unrelenting closeups and exquisitely framed two-shots) cannot be replicated or even approximated, however many actors and actresses are onstage. Van Hove's so-called innovations seem to flame out after the fight, because he stages the last scene with only Johan and Marianne #3 (played by Arliss Howard and Tina Benko, the production's most accomplished perfomers, although Carmen Zilles is appealingly tart as Katarina, the spiteful wife of their friend Peter). 

Even here van Hove can't help himself: when Marianne falls asleep, Johan puts on a record and proceeds to do an interpretive dance to Michel Legrand's syrupy "Windmills of Your Mind," another example of this "innovative" director using pop songs for unsubtle ironic commentary, including Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

Since the dialogue comes directly from Bergman's own script (with added instances of unneeded foul language), moments of humanity and psychological complexity do bleed through. But van Hove's often arbitrary experimentation smothers the rest.

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