Sunday, April 19, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—Ibsen's "Ghosts," Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

Written by Henrik Ibsen; adapted and directed by Richard Eyre
Performances through May 3, 2015
BAM Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through May 10, 2015
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Howle, McKenna and Manville in Ibsen's Ghosts at BAM (photo: Stephanie Berger)
Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, which scandalized audiences after its 1882 premiere by tackling such topics as sexually transmitted diseases, illegitimate children, euthanasia and religious hypocrisy, is considered far milder stuff today, so directors and adapters make it more playable for modern audiences. Case in point is Richard Eyre's compelling version that took London by storm two years ago, which gives Ibsen's already fast-moving story an even greater urgency. 

Ghosts concerns widow Helene Alving, who is making plans for her dead husband's memorial service, for which her beloved artist son Oswald has finally returned from Paris. Her long-ago paramour Pastor Manders arrives to discuss plans for an orphanage she built in her husband's memory, while her servant girl Regina tries avoiding her carpenter father Jacob, who wants her to live with him instead of staying in the Alving home.

When Helene confesses to a shocked Manders that her late husband was no paragon of virtue—in one of his many affairs, he fathered Regina, unbeknownst to Jacob or to Oswald, who wants to take her back to Paris and marry her—the family's symbolic ghosts break loose. Later, a metaphorical but very real blaze destroys the orphanage, which may be, as Manders says, a sign from God about the family's immorality. (Manders convinced Helene to forego insurance for the orphanage because God would take care of the place.)

Eyre's lucid adaptation and cogent directing aptly underline the anguished intimacy of Ibsen's drama: what might be musty and old-fashioned becomes simply spellbinding. This is helped immeasurably by Tim Hatley's striking set, which comprises translucent walls through which characters can be seen in a milky haze, and Peter Mumford's magisterial lighting, which makes such ghostly imagery plausible.

The strong cast comprises Charlene McKenna's Regina, Brian McCardie's Jacob, Will Keen's Manders and Billy Howle's Oswald, whose final scene is heartrending. And hovering above all is Lesley Manville as Helene Alving, an emotionally piercing performance by an actress known for her splendid work in several Mike Leigh films. This is the second excellent staging of Ghosts I've seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, following Ingmar Bergman's intensely personal adaptation in 2003.

Allen and Sarsgaard in Shakespeare's Hamlet at CSC (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Hamlet is often described as the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind, but director Austin Pendleton and actor Peter Sarsgaard have turned it into the tragedy of a man who seems to have has lost his mind. From the moment Sarsgaard walks onstage, clean shaven and bald, it's as if he just escaped from a hospital ward (on the show's Playbill cover, he looks more Hamlet-like in a full  beard and full head of hair). 

What Sarsgaard does onstage—shrieking laugh, bizarre intonations, voice rising to a high-pitched squeal while speaking Shakespeare's glorious poetry—is at odds with his usual intelligence and naturalness onstage. That the ghost of Hamlet's father is never seen in this production reinforces the possibility that Hamlet's own mixed-up mind forces him into his actions. It's just too bad that Pendleton and Sarsgaard never make this a plausible or well thought-out interpretation. Pendleton's production, in fact, is a bumpy ride throughout; the small cast, cramped stage, minimalist set and modern costumes confuse, rather than illuminate, matters.

Alongside Sarsgaard's meandering performance, Penelope Allen makes an unregal Gertrude and Lisa Joyce a fetching but dull Ophelia; Stephen Spinella, an unpersuasive Polonius, resorts to hamminess in desperation. Best of all is Harris Yulin's dignified Claudius, but no staging of Hamlet should have as its focus the prince's murderous uncle and stepfather.

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