You don’t usually equate 19th century theater icon Henrik Ibsen with comedy but playwright David Grimm has done just that in Ibsen in Chicago, a world premiere production now running at Seattle Repertory Theatre. The result is hilarious.
Directed by the Rep’s Artistic Director, Braden Abraham the play runs through March 4th in the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Rep. Grimm’s comedy was commissioned by the Rep, and it rifts on Ibsen’s classic Ghosts with mirth and imagination.
Picture it: Chicago, 1882 – the White Stockings won the National League Championship; the city prepared to host the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition; the meatpacking industry reigned supreme; and a surge of over 205,000 immigrants made the Windy City their new home. Of this new wave of Chicagoans, an unlikely ensemble of scrappy Scandinavian immigrants converges to present the American premiere of Henrick Ibsen’s Ghosts.
For Danish bricklayer-turned-impresario Henning Folden, the production is a long-time dream. His Grande Dame Diva girlfriend Helga will star, but he is challenged to find the rest of the cast. So he holds open auditions. He’s elated when a lovely young woman, Elsa, shows up—but Helga is not. Then a desperate Henning casts a couple of ragtag amateurs who happen by the Aurora Turner Hall, where he’s producing the play. Two Norwegian immigrants–a good-natured cobber named Per, who auditions with Patrick Henry’s famous Liberty speech, and Pekka, an argumentative conman—oops–opportunist always looking to score a quick buck.
Henning has his hands full, as he attempts to corral this unpolished and unruly thespian stable of new Americans. Unfortunately for him but fortunately for the audience, their antics and interpretations turn into a series of unpredictable and uncontrollable vaudevillian episodes.
Henning also promised his landlady that her meek sister Solveig could be part of the production. Meek and insecure, she arrives at rehearsals with in bloody couture—a bandage wrapped from head to chin. It seems she has an odd hobby–pulling out her teeth with pliers.
Four cast members are returning to the Rep: Kirsten Potter in the role of Helga, Christopher McLinden as Henning, Allen Fitzpatrick as Pekka, R. Hamilton Wright as Per, and Annette Toutonghi as Solveig. Hannah Ruwe is making her Rep debut as Elsa.
Ibsen’s play Ghosts has to do with the “ghosts” of the past that return to haunt the living. Not random “wooo-oooo” spirits, but those haunting our minds like an unsatisfied itch. The more you scratch, the more they itch.
Throughout his own life, Ibsen was an iconoclast who freely expressed his rejection of accepted ideas and institutions–a non-conformist and artist struggling to defend his identity in the hostile, judgmental environment of Norwegian provincialism. Like the character of Oswald, he railed against a society that crushes the “joy of life,” until only bitterness and frustration remain.
When Ghosts was produced in Norway it scandalized Norwegian society and Ibsen was strongly criticized. In 1898 when Ibsen was presented to King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, at a dinner in Ibsen’s honor, the King told Ibsen that Ghosts was not a good play. After a pause, Ibsen exploded, “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!”
Even Ibsen’s contemporaries found the play shocking and indecent. At the time, the mere mention of VD was scandalous and hush-hush. Large piles of unsold copies were returned to the publisher, the booksellers embarrassed by their presence on the shelves.
In 1891 England, the play was reviled in the press. In a typical review at the time, The Daily Telegraph referred to it as “Ibsen’s positively abominable play entitled Ghosts…. An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly…. Gross, almost putrid indecorum…. Literary carrion…. Crapulous stuff.”
Now Ibsen’s dramas are theatre classics He is widely regarded by many as the most important playwright since Shakespeare, and often referred to as “the father of realism” and is one of the founders of modernism in theatre.
However, unless the direction is superb and the actors are terrific, sitting through an Ibsen play can be a dreary experience. He wasn’t a funny man, nor was he a happy man. He was a depressed man with ghosts of his own. In fact, no one is sure he ever laughed.
Here’s a formula for a glorious night (or matinee) at the theater. Combine Braden Abraham’s incomparable direction with Kirsten Potter’s commanding and utterly grandiose turn as the Danish Diva Helga, Fitzpatrick’s forceful charisma as Pekka, Wright’s appealing everyman as Per, Ruwe’s sassy ingénue Elsa, Toutonghi’s endearing, comedic, and calamitous Solveig, and Henning’s blunt-spoken Oswald.
That’s why Ibsen in Chicago is so delightful. With just a sliver of Ibsen’s intentions, the actors’ over-the-top performances create unforgettable and hilarious theatrical bedlam.
Note: Ghosts actually premiered in Chicago in May 1882, when a Danish touring company produced it at the Aurora Turner Hall. Ibsen disliked the English translator’s use of the word “Ghosts” as the play’s title; he preferred the Norwegian Gengangere more accurately translated as “The Revenants,” which literally means “The Ones Who Return.”
Ibsen in Chicago runs in the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Rep through March 4th; tickets available at the Seattle Rep box office at 206-443-2222, or online at www.seattlerep.org. Learn more about this season at Seattle Rep here.
Kirsten Potter as Helga
Christopher McLinden as Henning
Allen Fitzpatrick as Pekka
Hamilton Wright as Per
Hannah Ruwe.as Elsa (Seattle Repertory Theatre debut)
Annette Toutonghi as Solveig
The Production Team
Braden Abraham (director)
G.W. Mercier (scenic and costume design)
L.B. Morse (lighting design)
Sharath Patel (sound design and soundscape creator
About David Grimm (Playwright)
Plays: Oriflamme (59 E. 59); Tales from Red Vienna (MTC); Measure for Pleasure (The Public Theater; Bug ‘n Bub Award; GLAAD Award nomination); The Miracle at Naples (Huntington; Best New Play IRNE Award 2009); Steve & Idi (Rattlestick); Chick (Hartford Stage); The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue (Hartford Stage); Kit Marlowe (The Public Theater; GLAAD Award nomination); Sheridan, Or Schooled in Scandal (La Jolla); Enough Rope (Williamstown; starring Elaine Stritch). Film: Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament (BAM; International Tour). He is the recipient of an NEA/TCG Residency Grant and commissions from Roundabout Theatre Company, Huntington Theatre Company, City Theatre Company, The Public Theater, and Hartford Stage. David has lectured in Playwriting and Screenwriting at the Yale School of Drama, Brown University, Columbia University, and NYU.
About Braden Abraham (Director)
Braden has served as Artistic Director at Seattle Rep since 2014. He has directed many productions for the Rep, most recently Well, Luna Gale, A View From the Bridge, The Comparables, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and A Great Wilderness. Other productions include: The Glass Menagerie; Clybourne Park; and the critically acclaimed, extended runs of Photograph 51; My Name is Rachel Corrie (U.S. regional premiere); and Betrayal. Braden directed the West Coast premieres of This (Seattle Rep), The K of D, an urban legend (Seattle Rep, Pistol Cat, FringeNYC, Illusion Theatre), Opus (Seattle Rep), and White Hot (Marxiano Productions/West of Lenin). Other premieres include: Riddled (Richard Hugo House); Clear Blue Sky (On the Boards/Northwest New Works); Breakin’ Hearts and Takin’ Names (Seattle Rep); The Ten Thousand Things (Washington Ensemble Theatre); and Kuwait (Theatre Schmeater). Braden has developed new work with Seattle Rep, Denver Theatre Center, On the Boards, The O’Neill Playwrights Conference, Ojai Playwrights Conference, Portland Center Stage, and The Playwrights Center. Member of SDC.