With Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" done by the Huntington Theatre Company and August Strindberg's "The Stronger" and "The Creditors" by The Portal Theater Company at the Works Theatre in Davis Square, theatergoers have a chance to compare two very different Scandinavian playwrights who revolutionized theater around the turn of the last century. Both shows are excellently acted and given settings that reflect their very different styles. For me, though, despite the excellent work by each company, the plays remain quaint period pieces, time-bound and difficult to relate to in this new century.
Both plays deal with "the woman problem" in totally different ways --- and not at all because Ibsen was Norwegian and Strindberg Swedish, but rather because they were written on opposite sides of a revolution. In a sense, Ibsen's "Hedda" in 1891 unlocked a door into sexuality as a fit subject for the theater, while Strindberg's "Creditors" after 1907 barged right through blasting that door off its hinges.
Ibsen's care to reflect in meticulous detail the social architecture against which his heroine struggles is perfectly realized in Alexander Dodge's lofty, formal, enclosing single set. Michael Krass' costumes also reflect the state of women: elaborately flowing lovely gowns caught up to the chin and down to the floor with tightly cinched waists and well-buttoned bodices --- though Kate Burton's Hedda spends most of her time in a diaphanous dressing-gown that must have shocked the '90s. Ibsen also depicts society's rigidly restrictive Class system, with disgrace awaiting anyone breaking its rules --- disgrace carrying with it social and economic ostracism --- and it's Caste system that allowed women only the obedient wife's at least outward respectability or the tawdry penury of the tart.
Ibsen's intention was to expose the hypocrisy of it all, but he rendered it realistically so that his audience could recognize all its lip-service details. A century later, those details and the little hints of small revolt that must have been jarring at the time are practically incomprehensible from the perspective of our uninhibited age. The awful disgrace of a woman leaving her husband is as foreign to us as corsets are. Even harder to understand is the fact --- taken by everyone in the play as axiomatic --- that such a proud, wilful, egotistical woman as General Gabler's daughter would settle for a ludicrous though adoring husband rather than face the disgrace of remaining unmarried.
Steeped in its century, Ibsen's script offers no help to a modern production of this famous war-horse, and Director Nicholas Martin offers no solutions either. The new translation by Robin Baitz does at least clean the text of dusty clichés ("Ah yes, those are the Dolomites!"), and this is an energetically engaging cast. Kate Burton rasps out her ironies with such a disdainful frown it's obvious that only she and the audience know how sarcastic they are. David Lansbury's Eilert Lovborg is genuinely despairing over his return to drunkenness, Michael Emerson's husband is puppyishly adoring and hopelessly ineffectual, and Harris Yulin's frankly lascivious Judge Brack is both direct and quiet in his suggestions of possible infidelities. They jump through Ibsen's hoops with energy, conviction, and enthusiasm --- even though none of them offers the slightest hint of why those hoops should be there in the first place. In the '00s the strictures of the '90s, particularly in Ibsen's newly realistic style of that time, just seem, well, quaintly odd.
Writing about twenty years later, Strindberg threw realism out the window entirely. In "The Creditors" his characters seem to be disembodied forces or internal states of being. The play is set in a seaside retreat where painter/sculptor Adolf has been recovering from an illness for five weeks, while his wife is away. The single-set 90-minute play falls into three acts.
In the first Adolf and Gustav --- who seems a diabolical psychiatrist --- discuss the wife, who wrote a novel pillorying her first husband as a fool. He bullies and cajoles Adolf, planting ideas in his head about their rocky marriage, even suggesting that her control over their sex-life has brought on a potentially fatal case of epilepsy. He invites Adolf to confront this woman upon her imminent return, and offers to confront her himself while Adolf secretly listens in order to expose her. Tekla the wife arrives, and has tempestuous scenes first with her husband and then Gustav, with disastrous results.
Strindberg indulges in repetitious spirals of elaborately see-sawing verbal fencing matches, with now one then the other thrown totally on the defensive. The feeling is expressionist rather than realistic. Characters say they are one thing, are attacked and redefined again and again, their different realities melting and braiding, never solidly secure from moment to quicksilver moment. Is she witch or servant? Who is right, or merely temporarily the winner, fluctuates incessantly.
Here again, the performances outshine the text. Sayra Player as Tekla is a powerful, fearless actress willing to follow the serpentine changes in the script with wholehearted immediacy. Derek Stearns is implacably domineering as Gustav and Forrest Walters is mushily manipulable as poor Adolf. The huge picture-window dominating the spare set shows a luminous projected shorescape that actually shows a steamer entering the harbor at one point, and even three bathers approaching and staring momentarily in through the window through some magic cooked up by Set & Costume Designer Spencer Brinker and Lighting Designer Kathy Peter. The fact that even the set itself changes realities mirrors the surface fluctuations in Strindberg's script.
But since these characters are disembodied psyches brawling over what is real, Strindberg leaves it up to the company to choose what momentary states to link into a dominant truth and which ones to supress. Director Rachel Shatil has not imposed a through-line on this material, and the cast when I saw the play had not yet found one. The continual seesawing conflicts each seemed like climactic triumphs for first one character, then for the other in the very next line, until the why of it all got lost in the bravado acting, the toe-to-toe shouting over what is right, who is right. Obviously, this play is open to many valid interpretations, but the company had yet to settle on one for their own.
As an almost curtain-raiser, The Portal Theater does the familiar classic "The Stronger" in which Strindberg does indeed make a choice. Here Sayra Player is a silent, single older actress confronted by Heather Edwards' younger, married mother in a one-sided conversation that reflects on their past intertwined lives with new insights. The discussion here is about an external reality that illuminates an internal one, but the form of this confrontation sets the tone for the longer play to come. Yet even here reality is ephemeral. Forrest Walters as a silent waiter brings one woman a cider rather contemptuously, the other a hot chocolate almost lovingly. And yet neither woman ever orders, nor do they pay.
With Strindberg, you never can tell, can you?