Fort Greene

Live at BAM: Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ retains youthful vigor after 134 years

April 15, 2015 By Benjamin Preston Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Lesley Manville (right) as Helene and Billy Howle as her son, Oswald. Photos by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of BAM
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It’s a good idea to enter a Henrik Ibsen play expecting to experience a range of heavy emotions as the drama unfolds. One may be relief that society is no longer repressive in the way that it was in the 1880s, when he wrote “Ghosts.” Another, perhaps, is a niggling sensation that comes from the knowledge that while the passage of time advances social norms, human nature tends to stay the same.

Almeida Theater and Sonia Friedman Productions is presenting an English-language production of “Ghosts” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this month, a year after BAM hosted Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” After its Chicago debut in 1881 — in Norwegian, by a Danish theater company — “Ghosts” was the subject of criticism and derision. Its commentary on themes of social repression, the futility of suffering for the sake of honor and the unjustness of rigid gender roles were a slap in the face of contemporary society.

That the story in “Ghosts” retains its youthful vigor 134 years after it was written is due in no small part to its propensity to deliver stinging criticism toward narrow-mindedness, which, unfortunately, always has a place in the human psyche. Staging the play before a modern Brooklyn audience may seem like preaching to the choir, but the intensity of Almeida’s performance left many people sighing, “Damn…” and “Jeez.” under their breath as they exited the theater Tuesday evening. But that was only after rising en masse for a standing ovation for the cast.

The power of the Ibsen’s severity issues forth from the acting talents of its five-member cast, to say nothing of Richard Eyre’s direction and Tim Hatley’s set design. Will Keen enters the stage confident and irascible as Pastor Manders, the embodiment of the seemingly rock-steady presence of church and convention. Keen’s stern-faced portrayal of the cleric would fool the uninitiated into believing that the character stands on firm moral footing. But the others in the story have other plans for him.

Lesley Manville, in her role as the strong, but emotionally vulnerable Helene Alving, begins the chipping away of convention, gradually crescendoing into a fusillade against a sham life she says she has lived to avoid the community’s scorn. Her steadfast devotion to an alcoholic lecher — who, in the narrative, is long dead — becomes the undoing of all involved in the story. Manville is adept at showing both sides of her character, and offers a taste of the heart-rending pain felt by a mother who cares very deeply for her son. In this, she brings a not-yet-resolved issue to the fore — assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

In a five-character drama, there’s danger that one or the other of the players could overshadow their stagemates. Such is not the case in Almeida’s production, and Billy Howle, as Oswald Alving, Charlene McKenna, as Regina Engstrad, and Brian McCardie, as Jacob Engstrad, work in concert with Manville and Keen to escalate the story toward its final, crushing tragedy. If one character walks away with what he wants, the others leave no doubt that his actual — as opposed to societal — depravity squashes any last hope of joy that could come from such an outcome. They all strip away the layers of ill-founded bravado that cocoon the childlike Manders.

The play has a scant number of lighter moments, too, and the cast delivers them wryly. But they are temporary respite from a pervading darkness. That there are still people in today’s world who behave like the reactionary pastor — who destroys himself and everyone around him with his obstinacy — is most likely the cause for all the long faces when the show ended.

But isn’t that what Ibsen was going for?

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