Reviewed by James Wilkinson
August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata. Performances run October 6th through 14th. Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8pm. Durrell Theatre at Cambridge Family YMCA, 820 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA Tickets: $20, Students, seniors and Stagesource members: $14. For tickets call 800.838.3006 or visit www.fortpointtheatrechannel.org
It’s best, I think, to drop any notions you may have about narrative structure before walking into August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata. This is a play that’s going to shatter each of those notions right before your eyes. Kudos to Fort Point Theatre Channel for having the nerve to take on this twisty puzzle box of a play. It is fascinating to have all of the play’s secrets and mysteries unfold in front of you until you turn around and realize you’re enveloped. If you have the chance to catch this production, now playing at the Durell Theater at the Cambridge Family YMCA, perhaps you’ll spend the whole evening, (as I did), with one eyebrow perpetually cocked as you silently repeat the phrase, “Wait…what?”
This is not a play that at all relies on plot. It can essentially be summed up with the following: An old man brings a young man into a household; they meet the people who live inside. That’s a very broad description of the piece, but essentially that’s it. What Strindberg appears to be interested in is not moving forward, but rather going underneath. Like the title suggests, this is a ghost story. We watch the past actions of the characters come back with a vengeance. Accusations and confessions of misdeeds and injustices are thrown across the room until your mind is left spinning as you try to keep all of the backstories straight. To even try to untangle it in this review would be futile. It’s more important to know that to enter into the play is to enter a world where each character is weighed down by sin, where vampires roam the halls and the scent of rot is hiding behind the perfect wall paper.
It’s a shame, then, that Fort Point Theatre Channel’s production never quite flies off the rails the way the play does. I spent much of the evening waiting for that to happen but most of it is performed in the realistic style of a kitchen sink drama. Director Christine Noah’s focus seems to be more on drawing a parallel between the facades that the characters create for themselves and the personas we create through social media in contemporary culture. Actors spend large chunks of the play poking and swiping at phones that emit a bright light on their faces. High above the set is a projection of an i-phone screen. Throughout the performance we see a slideshow of Tinder profiles, tweets, Facebook and Instagram postings that comment on the actions of the characters. It’s an interesting idea, but one that always seems at odds with the text of the play. Strindberg’s dialogue is so exposition-heavy that the projections become distracting. Early in the play I had to make the conscious choice to ignore the screen because I kept missing character backstory.
Audience members more used to the narrative shape of the well-constructed play might find Strindberg’s dialogue a bit frustrating. I’m not kidding when I say that many of the accusations seemed to be pulled out of thin air. What I think helps sell those characters in this production are several very fine performances by members of the company. Kevin C. Groppe chews the scenery (in a good way) as The Old Man as he snarls his way through several of his character’s nastier moments. Sally Nutt is appropriately screwy as the bandaged mummy that is kept in the parlor closet. In smaller parts, Dylan Goodman as Bengtsson and Krystal Hernandez as The Cook find moments of humor and menace that add to the overall feeling of threat lurking behind the walls. Paxton Crystal as The Student is essentially given the role of audience surrogate and he manages the part well, eyes full of hope and voice full of wonder as he’s brought into a world he’s long since admired.
I applaud Fort Point Theatre Channel’s attempt to do this play even if I don’t feel that all of the elements quite hang together. It is a very bizarre piece of theater that doesn’t get as many productions as some of Strindberg’s other plays. Audience members will certainly be given plenty to chew on, even if some leave wishing that they had a bit more.
Fort Point Theatre Channel’s production of August Strindberg’s A Ghost Sonata translated from the Swedish by Harry Carlson, plays at the Durell Theatre at Cambridge Family YMCA, October 6-14, 2017
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.fortpointtheatrechannel.org