Strindberg Man

Where Genius And Problem Case Meet

The New York theater's a system so old and sluggish that some days its blood hardly seems to circulate at all. For more than a decade now, the transfusions that have done the most to bring it back to life have come from a troupe of foreign artists performing, in an unfamiliar language, productions by a master whom most Americans know only as one of the world's great film directors. This year, they're scheduled to arrive at a time when the official spring season will be long past and most of New York will be heading for the beach, but it's a safe bet that no spring arts event will build up as much anticipation, or last as long in the memory, as this one: August Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata (June 20-24, BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100, directed by Ingmar Bergman for the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden.

It's another source of amazement that a country as stable and socially integrated as Sweden should have for a national poet a problem case like Strindberg, a restless, paranoiac, perpetually juvenile rebel-genius. In his frenetic life (1849-1912), he dabbled in everything from metallurgy to biblical philology, not excluding alchemy, the occult, and every political extreme from radical anarchy to proto-fascism. He also painted, sketched, and tried every literary genre from confessional memoir to five-act historical tragedy. In the process he became, along with Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw, one of the principal inventors of what we call modern drama.

While Ibsen structured the syntax of our theatrical language, Strindberg—who at various times emulated, cherished, and despised the older artist—invented most of its esthetic vocabulary. He wrote visions and brought dreams to life; he let the sex drive seep into naturalism and turned the death wish into high comedy. In his plays you can find—sometimes in the same script—social theory à la Brecht, folk poetry in Lorca's vein, and a synesthesia that anticipates Kandinsky or Scriabin. And in none of Strindberg's plays can you find more than in the three mysterious, densely disorienting scenes of his tiny (30 pages) masterpiece, The Ghost Sonata. Coincidence is destiny, a friend is an enemy, indoors is outdoors, love is betrayal, wealth is torture, the dead live with zest, and youth has its strength sapped by its nurturers.

BAM turns down the lights for the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden's production of the Ghost Sonata.
photo: Bengt Wanselius
BAM turns down the lights for the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden's production of the Ghost Sonata.

If some of that sounds like a Bergman film, it's no surprise. The two masters have often been compared, and the living one has shown his debt to his great predecessor by coming back to his work repeatedly. Bergman's staging of Miss Julie, seen at BAM 10 years ago with Lena Olin, was memorable for its mix of romantic sensuality and lewdly realistic detail. This new production is his fourth confrontation with The Ghost Sonata, and it's safe to say that by now he must have dug out some of the play's deeper secrets. His cast, headed by Jan Malmsjö and Elin Klinga, will include at least two faces made memorable by his films—those of Gunnel Lindblom and Erland Josephson. Expect pity, terror, low comedy, high dignity, and surprise. Expect theater. Expect Strindberg and Bergman. What could be more exciting than that?

A sampling of Off-Broadway shows opening this spring:

Opens March 1

Here, 145 Sixth Avenue, 647-0202

The Collision Theory company touches down at Here with an assemblage of alien-abduction narratives. Based on interviews with self-confessed abductees, and set amid the detritus of postwar American culture, the play probes (anally and otherwise) notions of memory, violence, and fear. (Soloski)

Opens March 1

Women's Project Theater, 424 West 55th Street, 239-6200

Kate Moira Ryan (book-lyrics) and Kim D. Sherman (tunes) get their Irish up at the Women's Project. Their new musical tells the story of a second-generation Irish American as she pieces together her family's history in order to reach the American dream—which probably doesn't include bar-backing at Paddy O'Reilly's. (Malachy McCourt not slated to appear.) (Parks)

Starts March 3

The Kraine, 85 East 4th Street, 539-7686

Perhaps they kill Kenny this time by eating him. South Park cocreator Trey Parker's 1995 film is adapted for the stage by the Saturday Players. A hungry young cast of 14 sing their way through a fictionalized account of Alfred Packer, the only American to be convicted of cannibalism. Next up: Stephen Sondheim's Donner at Eight. (Parks)

Opens March 4

Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 239-6200

First people, now puppies? Novelist Jessica Hagedorn adapts her 1990 novel, Dogeaters, to the stage. Originally mounted at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1998, the show is an ambitious look at the Philippines in the tumultuous '80s. Rent director Michael Greif helms the production; David Gallo, last year's Obie winner for set design, provides the island scenery. (Parks)

Opens March 5

The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street, 255-5438

Matthew Sweet's 1991 Girlfriend is a damn catchy record. So it seems a perfectly awful idea to turn it into a stage musical. But who knows? Writer Todd Almond and director Patrick Trettenero fill the gaps between the tracks with a story of two Nebraska kids coming to grips with their sexuality. (Note: The word "Cornhusker" is not sung on the record.) (Parks)

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