In this dark, still-ironic 1884 tragicomedy, the bringer-of-truth becomes the agent of destruction to a family who had been living in blissful ignorance of a history more tainted than that of the Oedipus clan. Boldly unearthed from its academic shackles, this is a production sure to appeal to a broad range of tastes.
In a hard-edged, aging tycoon and his emotionally damaged son, we have the progenitors of Arthur Miller's dysfunctional family epics. A fragile daughter, buffeted by life's blows, gave rise to Tennessee Williams's pinned-butterfly neurotic belles. Ibsen's husband and wife, glued together by an illusion, were the template for Edward Albee's George and Martha's imaginary baby number and Eugene O'Neill's rum-besotted dreamers.
Ibsen was a resolute moralist with a soothsayer's knack for endorsing and dramatizing causes that would take firm root in the next century. He carved frustrated, tormented victims of a repressed social order with the fierce majesty of a Michelangelo. He passed out superb neuroses and cutting social commentary while Freud was still in knee pants.
Artistic Director James Bundy feared that Ibsen with the original Norwegian corsets and unpronounceable names would have elicited audience paranoia by bringing back memories of failed college theater midterm exams and moldering daguerreotypes in the cellar. So they have taken the Carmen Jones route, removing it from its Victorian curio cabinet and kicking it into the present century, replacing fjords with Fords, and as a special lagniappe to those who thrill to local color, it's set in a loft in the Warehouse District of Cleveland.
Director Bill Rauch is the founder of the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, whose mandate is to give the classics a new-age goose by setting them in the cities in which they're performed -- i.e., a biracial, Southern-fried Mississippi Romeo and Juliet. (In Valdosta, Georgia, they're still talking about his production of The Three Sisters, which substituted Larry, Curly, and Moe for the eponymous sisters.) Anthony Clarvoe's adaptation gives Ibsen an industrial strength, a brawny quality, brushing away the cobwebs of the usually over-rarefied translations, with an occasional well-placed epithet to strengthen its red blood cells without distorting the original meaning. This hearty Norwegian houseplant for the most part thrives in this production's eclectic soil.
Its invigorating attitude is symbolized by phantasmagorical props, such as the use of a Godzilla-sized teddy bear, menacing and lovable at the same time. We're on an endlessly inventive excursion from lunacy to heartbreak, from sitcom to tears, from grotesquerie to profundity.
It commences in the chic decadence of a Northeast Ohio dinner party reminiscent of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Presiding over it is Laura Perrotta -- Cleveland's answer to Ava Gardner -- who, in a burgundy velvet evening gown, enacts a symbol of female perfection.
As an inventive gimmick to emphasize the local angle, a rotating roster of Cleveland luminaries appears in the opening party scene. In comic bits worthy of Monty Python, U.S. Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones emulates Margaret Dumont's sophistication, while newscaster Adam Shapiro fondly swirls his whiskey sour, doing a toothpaste-commercial approximation of Nöel Coward.
Director Rauch never settles for the expected. The play's manipulative tycoon is played by Mike Hartman with the cool WASP imperiousness of President Bush. His son Gregory, a compulsive truth-teller, is played by Michael Ornstein as a twisted Jason Alexander on Seinfeld, seeking reparation for a nonexistent sex life by hurling secrets about like hand grenades to blow up his best friend's marriage. This interpretation jells with a twisted surrealism that renders the evening a dark Seinfeld episode, with its misguided, self-involved complainers. Billy Jones, as the none-too-wise photographer, is all arrogance and gullibility, willing to desert his loving wife and child to salvage an overgrown sense of self-importance. His wife Gena, played by Katherine Heasley as a hillbilly earth mother, grounds the production in pragmatic warmth.
Most gripping is Sarah Lord, a dead ringer for Chelsea Clinton. Unlike her real-life counterpart, her father's shenanigans have driven her to the ultimate act of adolescent despair. Lord's sincerity is the emotional balance that keeps this mad, endearing balloon of colorblind casting from soaring into cloud-cuckoo-land.
From loft to mansion, Alec Hammond's set, with its working elevator and Fujimura windows, is a perfection of carpentry and inspiration.
Admittedly, this take on a revered old master has sacrificed a degree of its majesty in order to cozy up to the common man in its journey from hallowed literary origins to local neighborhood environs. But what is gained is an appreciation of how well Ibsen's work endures and how his insights and psychological nuances transcend language, time, and place.