Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Micah Kronlokken and Marsha Harman. Photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom.
By Bec Willett
When you think of the work of the ‘father of realism’ Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, it’s likely you’ll picture complicated marital relationships, gothic heroines, and telling letters. It’s unlikely you’ll think of zombies. Of course, that doesn’t mean the late 19th-century style can’t be morphed with the horror genre. In recent times – as is evident in series such as dark Archie comic revival RIVERDALE, Ivo Van Hove’s minimalist approach to Miller’s A VIEW FROM A BRIDGE, and versions aplenty of Sophocles’ ANTIGONE – much success and arguably greater meaning has been gained from a postmodern approach. It’s unfortunate then that in Akvavit Theatre’s production of this Ibsen adaptation “GHOSTS & zombies” the disparity of the realist and horror styles have been pushed even farther apart rather than knitted together.
I won’t ruin the surprise as to which parts of GHOSTS are zombie-fied, but I will tell you that this adaptation remains centered on Mrs. Helene Alving, who as a classic Ibsen heroine is duty-bound to keep hidden from her family and friends the truth of her abusive marital life. Regrettably Marsha Harman’s performance – along with most of the performances in this production – was frequented by inconsistencies in style darting from campy horror melodrama to intense realism. As the close friend of the Alving family, Pastor Manders, Jeremy Trager is the only actor who sits squarely in the campy horror style. This gains him flurries of laughter but detracts from the already murky story and relationship with generalized choices that are at odds with what is communicated in the text. Whether it be through inconsistency of style or intention, this lack of clarity in direction and performance make it a difficult story to invest in.
This feeling that “GHOSTS & zombies” can’t seem to find the world it wants to live in also seeps into the design. The initial image of the set is of a warm, 19th century home backdropped by a wall of windows, beautifully backlit to highlight their shape and line and with enough shadow to hint at the sinister events to come. However, as this production unfolds, the direction and design do not continue on this path. Instead of harnessing the darkness already present in Ibsen’s style through shadow and silhouette, it renounces all mystery by staging the zombie scenes in full light, with the garish stage makeup and generic physicality clearly on show. Of course, it is possible that some of the lacking nuance could be due to lighting designer David Goodman-Edberg’s storefront budget. While on the scenery front there’s a clearer vision, the two-hour-twenty performance meant that every missing detail – from the flat painted cobblestone floor to the not-quite-period table and chairs – were easily distinguished, and likewise added to the difficulty in engaging in the story.
While I struggled to remain engaged in this production, I will say that I believe that there’s much to be admired about what Akvavit Theatre is striving to do. Rather than following the well-worn path of many a Chicago theatre company, they are striving to bring another voice to the community through translating and producing the work of contemporary Nordic voices.
GHOSTS & zombies runs through October 29th. For more information visit chicagonordic.org.