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, www.bam.org) 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, Strindbergwho at various times emulated, cherished, and despised the older artistinvented 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 findsometimes in the same scriptsocial 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.
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 filmsthose 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:
THE ABDUCTION PROJECT
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 dreamwhich probably doesn't include bar-backing at Paddy O'Reilly's. (Malachy McCourt not slated to appear.) (Parks)
CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL, LIVE ON STAGE
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)
Opens March 8
Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, 239-6200
In Jon Robin Baitz's new work, Donald Sutherland plays Malcolm Raphelson, a reclusive painter hiding in Mexico. Raphelson's reputation faded long ago, but his rediscovery by the art world throws his expat life into chaos. The notable cast also features Julianna Margulies, Justin Kirk, and the excellent Denis O'Hare, whom I sat behind all through high school. (Parks)
I WILL BEAR WITNESS
Opens March 11
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, 677-4210
Victor Klemperer, a Jewish profes-sor in Dresden, kept a clandestine diarya record of daily life under the Third Reich. Published in English to great acclaim last year, the diaries now provide the grist for a solo performance created by director Karen Malpede and actor George Bartenieff. (Soloski)
L'ISOLA DI ALCINA
Opens March 14
The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, 255-5793
Ubu prizes are Italy's big theater awards, and last year this production won three: Best Performance, Best Italian New Text, and Best Actress. Created by Ravenna's Teatro Delle Albe, L'isola di Alcina is a dark piece of music theater about two sisters abandoned by both their father and their shared lovera structural parallel to do Euclid proud. Now the pair runs the family kennel, no doubt arguing about who let the dogs out. (Parks)
BACCHAE 2.1+A MOUTHFUL OF BIRDS
Opens March 23
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, 226-0051
Having recently kept Company with their innovative adaptation of Samuel Beckett's eponymous radio play, this talented young troupe now runs riot with the New York premieres of two Bacchae adaptations. Doing Dionysus proud, they'll program Charles L. Mee's Bacchae 2.1 and chew on Caryl Churchill and David Lan's A Mouthful of Birds. (Soloski)
Opens April 24
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100
Big kahuna Peter Brook fills the empty space of the BAM Harvey with his Hamlet adaptation, Brook's first U.S. Shakespeare production in 30 years. Brook writes that his version "seeks to prune away the inessential." (Even Fortinbras?) Heading the international cast, Adrian Lester stars as the melancholy Daneassuming Brook has left in the melancholy and Danish bits. (Soloski)
WONDER OF THE WORLD
Starts May 1
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, 581-1212
MTC finds itself over a barrel in David Lindsay-Abaire's new comedy. When a young wife discovers a dastardly secret inside her husband's sweater drawerfunny, I only ever discover sweatersshe lights out for Niagara Falls. An eccentric supporting castincluding a Brobdingnagian jar of peanut buttergets wet as well. Christopher Ashley directs. (Soloski)
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