House of Spirits

If it's true that the supreme test of any classic play lies in its adaptability to a modern director's radical vision, then it's also true that the playwright's unique insight into the human condition is what made the play a classic in the first place. In fact, contemporary adaptations of classic plays work best when a director puts his or her finger on the eternal human truths that inevitably recur from one generation to another. When those principles concern a group of characters' collective inability to outrun past mistakes, ancestral dogma and the mandates of heredity--which are the central ideas permeating Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts--the stage is set for a modern retelling of an old-fashioned horror story.

Ibsen's 1881 classic is being presented at Studio 44 by Denver's HorseChart Theatre Company. In a clever mixing of past with present, director J.K. Palmer chooses an approach that is part traditional, part avant-garde, staging the production in a starkly lit netherworld in which each character sports a costume that is half contemporary dress, half antique boutique. Although Palmer's experimental version sometimes overstates the obvious and lacks the sort of subtle tension that prompted one critic to term Ibsen's original "the strongest play of the nineteenth century, and also the most harrowing," the director occasionally illuminates the frightening realities of an extended family's inexorable slide into despair.

All of the action takes place in the country house of Mrs. Alving (Kathryn Gray), a widow whose husband was a dissolute ship's captain. The play begins with a simmering argument between Mrs. Alving's young maid, Regina (Jennifer Bledsoe), and her widower father, a ne'er-do-well carpenter named Jacob Engstrand (Jake Arnette). Contemptuous of his money-grubbing lower-class habits (he's clad in the remnants of a neon-orange highway vest and wears a workboot on one foot and a mid-calf leather boot on the other) and extremely conscious of her position as a maid in a supposedly respectable household, Regina rebuffs her father's feeble attempts to get back into her good graces. But her hoity-toity pretensions ring hollow when she thickly declares, "Don't give me that crap!" on the heels of scolding him for swearing in her presence. It's just one indication that Regina's aspirations to a more genteel life are compromised by her humble origins.

We're introduced to Pastor Manders (Stephen Cosgrove), a rock-ribbed cleric who once counseled a distraught Mrs. Alving to uphold her matrimonial vows following her disastrous first year of marriage to Captain Alving. ("The spirit of rebellion makes us seek happiness in this life," says the pastor when recalling those early years.) Now Manders serves as both minister and business counselor to Mrs. Alving, advising his close friend and former love interest in her quest to erect an orphanage as a memorial to her late (and philandering) husband. In due time, we meet Mrs. Alving's son, Osvald (Matt Saunders), a sickly painter who's returned home in order to regain his strength and plot a future for himself. We soon learn that the sins of the father have been revisited on Osvald, who's suffering from the advanced stages of venereal disease.

Performed against a backdrop of tattered curtains looming over a stage floor painted with a spiraling vortex pattern, director Palmer's briskly paced production adequately conveys the urgent, disturbing undertow of impropriety that threatens to swamp the characters in a sea of scandal. Sometimes, though, Palmer's expressionistic choices are heavy-handed and work against the current of Ibsen's meticulously crafted dialogue. For instance, one of Mrs. Alving's great apprehensions is that Osvald and Regina, who are actually brother and sister, will become romantically involved.(Unbeknownst to the younger characters, it was Captain Alving--not Jacob Engstrand--who impregnated Regina's mother, the former household maid.) But rather than allow that phantom-like terror to linger in our imaginations and manifest itself through Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving's agitated discussion, Palmer directs Bledsoe and Saunders to appear on one corner of the stage and grope each other while Mrs. Alving recounts to Manders her husband's fall from grace. As a result, we focus more on the lurid aspects of Osvald and Regina's incestuous relationship--which doesn't appear all that out of place in this macabre discotheque of a setting--instead of immersing ourselves in the far-reaching effects of Mrs. Alving's self-fulfilling prophecies.

By contrast, Palmer's decision to bathe the stage in green light during Mrs. Alving's speech about her personal demons intensifies our understanding of her psychological torment, especially when Gray's shadow is cast in four or five different places at once. And the director's intermittent use of ominous sound effects such as cello music and dripping rainwater are most effective near the end of the drama, when the implications of Osvald's illness become horrifyingly real. However, while it's intriguing, Palmer's choice to place Mrs. Alving in an easy chair near the edge of the stage is mostly confusing--we don't realize until well into Act Two that the chair is supposed to be in another room (given the surreal goings-on, it might even be in another dimension). A few exits are awkwardly staged as well: At times the characters walk toward a bluish light and, like Victorian pod people, pause, stare meaningfully into the abyss and then slowly leave the stage.

Still, most of the actors manage to render satisfactory portrayals that do rough justice to Ibsen's splendid dialogue. Gray leads the company with a mature, restrained portrait of Mrs. Alving. When she turns to Manders and utters, "Every judgment you have passed on my marriage has been based on the common rumor of the time," we're thankfully afforded a glimpse of the playwright's lifelong contempt for social institutions that circumscribe the rights of the individual. As her son, Saunders exudes the young bohemian's smoldering bitterness at having been tragically betrayed by his own blood ties. Arnette invests his portrayal of Engstrand with a transparent devotion to noble causes that is initially arresting and ultimately pathetic. As Regina, Bledsoe summons an appropriate mixture of unrequited desire and visceral scorn. And although Cosgrove fails to locate the intricate turns of phrases and studied mannerisms that bespeak an image-conscious pillar of nineteenth-century society, his oily turn as the prattling pastor at least suggests the kind of earnest hypocrite that Ibsen is after. All in all, despite Palmer's disjointed, broad-brush emphasis on the production's physical aspects, his daring approach manages to shed a few interesting, if frequently bizarre, shafts of light on a neglected and eminently stageworthy classic.

Ghosts, presented by HorseChart Theatre Company through March 27 at Studio 44, 2865 West 44th Avenue, 303-458-0755.

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Jim Lillie

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