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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
by Macey Levin
As the play opens three men -- Corporal Noyd (Michael McComiskey), Pastor Jonas (Anthony Newfield) and Captain n Adolf (Erick Hill) -- are engaged in a challenging discussion on the meaning of fatherhood and the question of paternity, which at the time could not always be readily determined. This conversation is prompted by Corporal Noyd's unwillingness to accept responsibility for a baby he most likely fathered. While the focus is on Noyd, the paternity question will come to haunt Captain Adolph later in the day when, during one of their confrontations, Adolf's wife Laura (Charlotte Maier) taunts him by intimating that he may not be the father of their daughter Bertha (Jill Renee Baker). This propels him into a series of desperate measures that literally drive him insane. As a picture of a marriage, the play makes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf an exemplar of wedded bliss.
Adolf declares "It's man versus woman, all day, endlessly" This message, a reflection of Strindberg's view of women, having been unhappily married three times, is repeated throughout the development of the play. The captain believes (not without cause) that Laura has mounted a campaign to thwart his scientific research, to humiliate him in front of his friends, and to undermine his decision making power and relationship with his beloved daughter. Too long accustomed to being all powerful, he realizes too late that his wife has outmaneuvered him.
Strindberg has created a household of women, including Adolph's former governess Margaret (Lenka Peterson) who replaced his rejecting mother, that promotes his misogynistic attitude. The females are depicted as conniving, narrow-minded and ignorant. Visitors to the Captain's home who serve to build the conflict between science and faith, a major issue during Strindberg's time (as it is today) include Laura's brother, Pastor Jones (Anthony Newfield) and Doctor Oestermark (David Atkins).
Despite its place in history, The Father is dated and its premise is negated by contemporary science's DNA research. Anders Cato, who translated and directed this version of the play, follows the basic plot, but he has not served Strindberg or the play well. The infusion of the nineteenth century stylized text with contemporary idioms results in a clash of language that is jarring. He also introduces a character called A Spirit (Gus Solomon Jr.) whose main function seems to be as a prop.
The adaptation makes the characters one-dimensional: the captain is paranoid; Laura is manipulative and evil; Bertha is torn between her parents; etc. It all reeks melodrama and lacks subtlety and has the cast struggling under this weight and unable to bring a realistic tone to the production. A number of line readings produced unintended laughs, and the staging is occasionally awkward, allowing the actors to fall into moments of posturing.
The play may be important in its historical context, but time and psychological studies have passed it by. It was not impossible that Cato might change this given his previous work. However, unlike his Strindberg's Miss Julie two years ago (For CurtainUp's review of that production go here, this production is a major disappointment.
Editor's Note: I saw the play reviewed above a day after Macey and I wish I could turn this into a he said/she said, thumbs up and down review. Unfortunately, while I thought Eric Hills gave an emotionally forceful performance as the arrogant and inevitably mad as a hatter Captain, the director's failure to curb the play's inherent histrionic bent made it impossible to escape the sense of dated melodrama. Charlotte Maier had some of the creepy icyness of Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca but, like Hill, she never managed to convince me that their relationship was ever anything but a tug of war.
Macey mentioned the outstanding production of Miss Julie of several seasons ago, but that was based on a translation by playwright Craig Lucas. Mr. Cato's work as adapter/translater does not brush the dust motes off this difficult to like play. The play on Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Hamlet also brought unintended laughs at the performance I attended. The attempt to turn the Captain into a vulnerable male yearning to be in touch with his feminine side doesn't work and is likely to have women in the audience exclaim "give me a break." Like Macey I was mystified not only as to why the character of the Spirit was added but why Gus Solomon Jr., a well known figure of the dance world, is willing to be part of a show which only uses him to let us see that the solid looking walls of Karl Eigsti's set are actually a scrim (a nice metaphor for a marriage with walls that look solid but can't hide the dysfunction). The play may be important in its historical context, but time and psychological studies have passed it by. Olivera Gajic's finely detailed costumes and Scott Killian's sound design are all excellent, but in the end, the play's what counts and I'm afraid the marriage of Cato's words and ideas and Strindberg's is as incompatible as that of Captain Adolph and Laura. -- Elyse Sommer