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A CurtainUp Review

By Jenny Sandman

If something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it's not Kaj Munk's Ordet, beautifully staged by Handcart Ensemble. Originally written in 1925 and staged in 1932, this New York premiere has been adapted from Carl Dreyer's film which won the 1956 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

Despite the handsome staging and able acting, however, this production lacks spark. Part of that lies squarely with the subject matter. A solid Danish kitchen-sink drama, Ordet is centered around the religious conflict of two families, exploring religious conservatism vs. fundamentalism.

Borgen, the patriarch of the estate Borgensgaard, is a cantankerous old man. He fights everyone, including his son Mikkel, who doesn't agree with his father's religious beliefs. Borgen is also butting heads with his neighbor Reuben over the marriage of his son Ander and Reuben's daughter Esther. Reuben won't even consider the marriage. He considers Ander's religion too liberal.

Though Borgen too is opposed to the marriage, he chafes at Reuben's strictures and consequently determines to force the marriage through. A terrible fight between the two fathers errupts aand is interrupted by Borgen being summoned home because his daughter-in-law, Inger, has fallen gravely ill during childbirth. Johannes, Borgen's mentally impaired son (and one-time favorite) is convinced he's Jesus and so persuades Inger's children that he can raise her from the dead. This leads to a fierce religious debate within the Borgen household.

This conflict that may seem revelant but somehow rings empty. While some fundamentalist religious may still debate such things, they are not generally considered impediments to marriage. Yet these are the points around which Borgen and Reuben's conflict centers -- that, and whether miracles can still occur. There's not enough of an audience to get excited about all this talk about how to divine God's will, how to interpret the blessings (or lack thereof) of God, and how to survive "trials of faith."

The play is staged simply and sparsely and appropriately highlights the family drama. The plain Danish homes are represented with a backlit white curtain behind a low brown wall with three offset, irregular windows. A plain dining table with side benches, tea service and scythe are the only furnishings. This is punctuated with haunting, somber music.

With the strong performances and direction, Handcart Ensemble almost overcomes the somewhat staid subject matter. Jennifer Gawlik as Inger is a little stiff, but Bob Armstrong as Borgen has more than enough vitality to go around, as does Bill Tatum as Reuben. Both are aptly fiery, and their confrontation provides most of the production's dramatic impact. Tom Martin as Johannes does a nice job of not being a complete zealot (or loony). Although the large cast consists mainly of peripheral characters, they work and move well together, aided by Reynolds' sharp direction.

Ordet certainly provides philosophical food for thought. While the religious debate often seems heavy-handed, it's an interesting look into early twentieth-century life in rural Denmark. It's also a chance to see a solid production of a rarely-performed play.

Written by Kaj Munk; translated by R.P. Keigwin and adapted by J. Scott Reynolds
Directed by J. Scott Reynolds
Music by Lansing McLoskey
With Bob Armstrong, Angela Brinton, Barbara Ayres Bruno, Jennifer Gawlik, Bob Harbaum, Dan Leeds, James Mack, Tom Martin, Lucy McMichael, Todd Parmley, Karlee Roberts, Joanne Rowland, Amanda Sprecher, and Bill Tatum
Lighting Design by Eric Cope
Costume Design by Nicole Frachiseur
Set Design by Doug Flandro
Running time: Two hours with one intermission
Handcart Ensemble, Theatre 315, 315 West 47th Street SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 3/13/04 through 4/13/04.
Tickets $15; $12 students and seniors.
Tuesday to Saturday 8pm.
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on March 16th performance

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