Henrik Ibsen+Jon Fosse: Norway Meets New York: Rosmersholm
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
August 11, 2006
Oslo Elsewhere's revival of Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm is a good production. It is not flashy, it is not extraordinary, but it is, nonetheless, good theatre. Although perhaps occasionally trying too hard to be great, it ultimatly serves a master playwright far better than his own text does, which is quite an accomplishment, and worthy of note.
The story focuses on John Rosmer. Formerly a strong conservative voice, a pastor, and a believer in the values of the present administration and the right, he was universally considered a noble man. At some point, Rosmer and his wife took in Rebecca West, a single woman and a free thinker. Through many days and nights of conversations with Rebecca, Rosmer's mind opens up and thoughts of free will, pure nobility, and true freedom begin to simmer. While he throws off his traditional ways of thinking, his wife's mental state decays and, eventually leads her to commit suicide.
Due to his unconventional, and platonic, union with his closest friend, Rebecca, Rosmer's conservative peers feel betrayed, and in turn, betray him, leaving him in the company of Rebecca; his liberal (and drunk) mentor, a rabble-rousing activist and newspaper editor; and Mrs. H, the family maid. As the play progresses, we slowly see the degradation of Rosmer's ideas of utopian life as real life, and his surrounding society, including Rebecca's shady past and her personal motivations, prove incompatible with his dream. In a final tragic twist, the ultimate realization of the potential of his utopian ideal proves to be his final undoing.
The play is essentially an extended, and dated, series of riffs, musings, arguments, and discussions, ranging from the nature of free will, to ideological liberation, free speech, democracy, and "pure" love. There's something, I'm sure, very tantalizing about using these arguments and the play itself to create a commentary on the present conditions facing this country and the world. Thankfully, the folks at Oslo Elsewhere have sidestepped that obstacle. In fact, they've managed to fairly deftly avoid many of the potential pitfalls of this play and succeeded in creating a very nice evening at the theatre.
Anna Guttormsgaard and Bridgette Wimberly, with Oda Rodoor, have done a masterful job of translating the play and adapting it to a more modern setting and sensibility without being overly involved in changing the voice of the play or in "updating" it in any overt way. It is crisp, it is clear, it and moves well. It is also very true to the original while feeling contemporary. Occasionally the text will drift a bit too far to the familiar, as when ultra-conservative Professor Kroll, after extolling the benefits of banning books, hits Rosmer with the recognizable neo-con Bush-ism of "if you're not with me, you're against me" in response to the pastor's urging that they "debate nobly," but even here it is the heavy hand of the playwright's sentiments, 115 years old as they may be, that the adaptors are struggling with. Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen's more dogmatic pieces, and although it has been thankfully streamlined here, the play itself is a very tough obstacle to overcome.
Guttormsgaard, in the role of Rebecca West, and Charles Parnell, as Rosmer, carry the burden of two very difficult roles. Both actors bring a groundedness, understanding, and likeability to their roles that allow them to be real people and not just mouthpieces for Ibsen's lecture. Especially in the most emotional moments of the play, when her deep accent sneaks through, Guttormsgaard shows that she can be a force onstage.
Lauren Helpern's set, although very lovely, takes up the majority of the stage space, leaving director Timothy Douglas to make due with very little, but the use he makes of it, keeping movement to a minimum, allows the actors to spend focused time on the text. Composer Cristian Amigo and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger use melancholy guitar chords and deep blues slashed with white to evoke the magical and dangerous surroundings of Rosmersholm, where Mrs. H, the vibrant and eternally endearing Lizan Mitchell, sees ghosts and death in the form of white horses.
Rosmersholm is a very conflicted play. In fact, nearly everything about the play is an exploration of conflicting ideas, and an attempt to come to a conclusion about what can best be described as a philosophically, intellectually, and morally utopian society. Unfortunately, like most utopian societies, I don't know if this play can ever truly work in practice.