May 16, 2003

Image is nothing, subtext is everything; see Ghosts

The plays of Henrik Ibsen, who is often considered the father of modern drama, present a particular challenge for anyone involved in their production. Very fond of purposely withholding explicit descriptions of emotions, Ibsen relies on subtext to flesh out the often strained and bizarre relationships of his characters. In order to create a show that exposes the full weight of the plot and the intensity of the action, the director and actors must make very specific choices about the content of the subtext--a character's thoughts and feelings, which are not expressed through the superficial significance of the dialogue.

Once the subtext is defined, the performance should communicate it. The best productions make the underlying intentions clear without beating the audience over the head with them. University Theater's production of Ibsen's Ghosts, directed by Jack Tamburri, appears to understand well the driving forces of the characters, but the way these forces are expressed may be too subtle.

Ghosts quickly situates itself in an overtly religious atmosphere, as one of the first few lines refers to "God's holy rain," a thinly veiled pun. It is Engstrand (Ethan Cooper), a simple, elderly fellow who is crippled with a puzzlingly nondescript ailment in his leg, who spouts this pious rhetoric. But the audience soon becomes aware of serious flaws in his holy comportment when Regina (Liz Saydah), his daughter, acidly rebukes both his drinking problem and the turbulent friction that characterized the marital relations with his late wife.

The entrance of Pastor Manders, played by a reserved Matt Tievsky, reaffirms the church's formidable influence on the lives, both the long-term and quotidian, of this Scandinavian country town's constituents. Manders appears to have succeeded in saving Engstrand from sin. However, this shabby paternal figure's transgressions are merely the tip of a scandalous iceberg that creeps through the Alving estate. Zarina Feinman portrays the widow Alving as a weathered mother whose composure disintegrates as the play wears on.

Her artist son, 27-year-old Oswald Alving (played by Troup Howard), has the legitimate desires of a sheltered Scandinavian. He rightly yearns to leave behind the dreary climate and overbearing, provincial attitudes of the countryside for the open-minded, cosmopolitan city. Nonetheless, Howard's sometimes whiny interpretation tends to undermine Oswald's positive qualities. The rather unstable Oswald inadvertently intimates to the impressionable Regina that she can one day join him on a Parisian sortie. This unintentional ray of hope creates a sticky situation for Mrs. Alving, one that frighteningly hearkens to the behavior of her deceased spouse.

Tamburri said he wanted to show the extent to which leaving problems unsaid, and keeping important, life-changing events secret, produces terrifying consequences. Indeed, Ibsen demonstrates how this practice can result in tremendous distances between characters that are very closely connected through various familial ties. Ghosts provides substantial fodder for each character to run the gamut of emotional extremes.

UT and Jack Tamburri have created a time bomb with their rendition of Ghosts. The audience anxiously anticipates the explosion of a volatile scenario. A little more punch in the resulting outbursts may have helped ease the restlessness of the wait, but overall the production was well-conceived.

To check out the dark world of Henrik Ibsen, see Ghosts tonight at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. in the Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater of the Reynolds Club. Tickets are $5.