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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
That there is a poisonous cloud hovering over the fjord by which Little Eyolf is set is almost immediately evident. The central characters -- the triangle of Alfred and Rita Allers (James Wallert and Teri Lamm) and his half-sister Asta (Melissa Friedman) -- are bitter and unhappy, and a visit from the creepiest character Ibsen ever invented -- The Rat Wife (Rebecca Schull) -- doesn't help matters any more than Alfred's uncommon relationship with Asta.
This lesser-known Ibsen work inverts the essence of the more familiar A Doll's House. There is no real glimmer of hope that the pernicious conditions will abate; yet in the end, there will be no slamming door.
What we find, however, is a play of remarkable complexity that mirrors real-life psychologies in its failure to resolve its central dynamic. As the play opens, Alfred has returned from a self-imposed exile from fjord and family. During the hiatus, he decided to alter his life's work -- assuming responsibility for Eyolf (Michael Reid), their unfortunate son (disabled by a fall during a moment of passion in this passionless marriage) rather than writing a tome on the subject of human responsibility -- in a way that inflames rather than alleviates marital discord. But it's not that decision, nor his revelation (seemingly shocking but no doubt tacitly understood already) that he married Rita for her money -- and, still worse, for Asta's benefit -- which drives the action. Rather, it is controlled by forces, largely unseen but for the symbolic presence of The Rat Wife, that, were this a Greek drama, we would call Fate. When the play concludes, we find Alfred and Rita still together, and alone. Asta has gone off with Borgheim (Craig Rovere), the man in whom Rita has been furiously trying to interest Asta; and Little Eyolf has fulfilled his mother's dream for him, drowning (face up) in the fjord to which the enigmatic, prophetic Rat Wife drives her pests.
Had Ibsen lived a century later, Little Eyolf might have been a television series, and its curtain might have been a season-ending cliffhanger. This thought occurs to me because Ron Russell's version of the play (he is both its adapter and director) has just that feel. Trim and straightforward, it is long on histrionics and short on emotional depth. While I was very impressed a year ago by Epic Theatre Center's inaugural production, Time and the Conways (also directed by Mr. Russell and featuring four of the six performers here), this show falls short of that mark.
The greatest acting burden falls on Ms. Lamm. Rita is a fascinating creature, consumed by jealousy that begets hatred and then guilt. And nonetheless she remains. It calls for a layered performance that mines the contours of her personality. Here, much is left on the table, although her performance grows on you as the play progresses. Alfred and Asta are far less demanding roles, and Mr. Wallert and Ms. Friedman deliver them far more successfully. He is particularly convincing in dealing with his son; she does especially striking work in reaction to Alfred's dredging up of memories as a basis for their questionable relationship. In the smaller roles, young Michael Reid is quite fine as the title character, as is Craig Rovere's Borgheim (although his tone seems a bit out of place). The stunning performance, however, is that of Rebecca Schull as The Rat Wife. It's brief but memorable (as it should be), and practically worth the price of admission on its own.
I complained about the set in Time and the Conways. This time I can be more enthusiastic. Nathan Heverin manages to capture the scene simply but evocatively, and with noteworthy flexibility. Mattie Ullrich's costumes are nearly perfect, Sean Farrell's lighting is effective and well-considered and David Bullard's sound design is modest but consistent.
Epic's annual full productions are but the tip of the iceberg in a company that is devoted to educational outreach. Its exposes thousands of school children to hands-on theatrical experiences. Its current project is called Antigone-in-Progress, and seeks to connect the themes of the classic play with concerns of the students' world.
Little Eyolf at Century Center
Time and the Conways
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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