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The original Swedish title of Victoria Benedictsson’s 1888 tragedy The Enchantment is the evocative Den Bergtagna — literally, “the one taken by the mountain.” Benedictsson was part of the Scandinavian realist wave; she wrote a celebrated naturalistic novel under a male nom de plume and was known for revealing the bleak existence of married women trapped by Swedish convention. But she also collected folksongs, and their eeriness seeped into her work. She borrowed her title from the ballad “Den Bergtagna,” in which a woman ventures into the court of the Troll King (“She knocked on the mountain with her little fingers”) only to find her supernatural lover won’t let her escape. In Benedictsson’s play, the heroine wanders into Paris, but it, too, proves a spellbinding fairyland. Artists and writers waltz around her; a powerful man ensnares her in an awful, unequal love. The Left Bank proves just as inescapable, its lures as irresistible, as any castle underground.
Benedictsson’s drama tells a coded version of her very real affair with the critic Georg Brandes: Swedish naïf Louise (Fiona Mongillo) falls hard for swaggering sculptor Alland (Matthew DeCapua), whose dedication to the nineteenth-century version of “free love” makes her run mad. (Benedictsson cut her throat with a razor before she could finish Den Bergtagna; a friend completed the text.) A play about explosive female desire is a rarity — at least, it is now. At the time, poor Benedictsson seems to have touched off a heat storm of art around the issue: The playwright allegedly inspired both Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which reads today almost as fetish drama. Benedictsson may have written it because she lived it, but male playwrights wanted to write about her, too: the Scandinavian woman in the high-necked dress, shaking herself apart.
The production downstairs at the HERE Arts Center is not, ultimately, bewitching. Its pleasures are mainly intellectual: the joy at seeing the play in a vigorous new translation (by Tommy Lexen), the excitement over hearing such a keen and desperate voice out of the past. The company, Ducdame Ensemble, has been hampered, though, by its miniature venue, and cramped further by Mary Hamrick’s “thrust” set design, which puts the audience on three sides of the action. Director Lucy Jane Atkinson creates as much movement as she can, but she’s in a corner: The show feels rigid, and the actors pirouette on their marks like dolls on a music box.
There’s also a serious imbalance in the cast. Ducdame was founded by graduates of the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, and some members are extremely good: Claire Curtis-Ward as Louise’s potential sister-in-law, Jane May as a painter trying to stop Louise’s self-destruction, and the exquisite Mongillo herself. But the men trying to seduce them? Eesh. Good jaws, but unconvincing presences. Ironically, in a piece about the female gaze, the men seem to have been chosen for their beauty alone — it might be a power reversal, but it’s not quite the one we’re looking for.
HERE Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue
Through July 22